tricks of the (craft) trade: the fictional footnote

Narrative techniques come in and out of fashion. First person point-of-view is the most obvious example. If you remember any one line of Jane Eyre, it’s most likely Reader, I married him..

That particular example also uses a technique which you’ll see less often — breaking down the fourth wall. Which means, simply enough, that the narrator looks right at the reader and consciously addresses that person.

This is done most often on stage, and when it’s deftly handled, it adds a whole new dimension to the story. The audience becomes complicit, in a way, drawn into the story itself. Of course, this technique works especially well for stage plays because the audience really is sitting right there,; there’s a real energy, a palpable energy, flowing back and forth.

In England there’s a kind of stage play I have never experienced here in the states. A pantomime is a play for children, with a lot of interaction between players and audience built in. (Wikipedia has a good overview of how pantomimes work, here.) I’ve seen a couple of these — Frog & Toad, and The Ugly Ducking, and I have rarely enjoyed a theater production so much. Kind of like going to a midnight screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with a happier edge, and sometimes even wackier bent. Kids and adults seem to enjoy pantomimes equally.

If an author wants to break down the fourth wall in a novel, the easiest way is with a first person narrator who tells his or her story to the reader directly. This is not done very often. More usually the primary character is talking to another character within the story. In third person narratives it’s even less common to have a story narrated directly to the audience. John Fowles managed it in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by means of footnotes. He uses the space at the bottom of the page as a kind of parlor where he comes to talk to the readers about the story as it unfolds. I remember an almost visceral shock when I first read that novel and came across a footnote. Being allowed into the author’s creative process in that way jolted me. It wasn’t instructive in tone — no “observe this, reader” but collaborative: this character insists on going down to the Cobb, though I had no intention of her going there.

You don’t see the footnote-as-parlor approach very often. My guess is that most authors are afraid of it. I personally love the idea, but it also scares me. If I put that door at the bottom of the page, what kind of complications might ensue? Maybe you, the reader, will use it to creep into the story.

6 Replies to “tricks of the (craft) trade: the fictional footnote”

  1. I really like getting inside an author’s head so I think I would like this a lot. But, at the same time, I could see a problem with there being too much information. I do like to leave a little to my own imagination. There are some questions I’d like to ask sometimes — like, “why did you choose to have the character do this?” or “what were you thinking when you included this?” but my feeling is that some authors don’t really like being asked — even if the question was asked in curiosity, not in complaint.

  2. Very interesting observation… of course it would take a writer to fully comprehend and appreciate the intricacies of such a device. To me as the average reader, I can’t say that I’ve read many books that go that way. Only one Louis L’Amour comes immediately to mind, and it was more of a historical footnote than anything else.

  3. I didn’t like The French Lieutenant’s Woman precisely because he stepped through the 4th wall. I think I remember it was more than just the footnotes, but that was a while back.

    I’m not opposed to the 4th wall break, particularly if it’s presented by the author as a story-telling story, as in “I remember this time when…” Maybe I just didn’t like TFLW no matter what.

    Footnotes are marginally ok. I prefer them as the author’s comments at the back of the book, rather than in the body of it. Even translations of foreign phrases I prefer in the body in italics or parentheses.

  4. As I recall Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal and the White” started out in the 4th wall break that you describe Rosina and it wasn’t just a line or two…it was the whole first chapter. I got sucked in completely by it. The rest of the book was done in third person.

  5. Yes, Wilma, I remember that about ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’. And I loved that book–it absolutely worked. I also loved ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, but I honestly don’t remember the footnote thing, just the story itself (but it’s been a while since I read it).

    I think you have to have a certain kind of story for it to work, and a certain kind of narrator/writer relationship. One book that I read recently that does something similar with referencing is ‘Special Topics in Calamity Physics’, but because the narrator is a teenage girl, it comes off as incredibly pretentious, in my opinion.

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