Unconventional Formatting YKTTW Discussion

Unconventional Formatting
Words________________ placed on the page in UNUSUAL ways
(permanent link) added: 2011-09-24 04:46:24 sponsor: Folamh3 (last reply: 2011-10-07 04:34:37)

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Exactly What It Says on the Tin. A literary trope
in which the text is arranged on the page in strange ways, including but not limited to: right-to-left (in Western works), bottom-to-top, reversed, upside-down etc. It can also make use of colours, multiple fonts and other typographical tricks of this nature.

It can be done for a variety of reasons. A popular one is to represent a character's mental state, e.g. using cramped text to symbolize claustrophobia or feeling "trapped".

Other writers may use it to visually represent the action being described in the text.

The technical name for this is ergodic literature, from the Greek ergon, meaning "work", and hodos, meaning "path" - that is, formatting in which a great deal of work is required on the part of the reader to find a "path" through the text.

A subtrope of Painting the Fourth Wall. Sometimes used in Meta Fiction and Scrapbook Stories. See also Footnote Fever (with which this sometimes overlaps), Censor Box, Bold Inflation, Color-Coded for Your Convenience and Page Turn Surprise.

Note: When adding examples, please be descriptive.



  • Whenever someone writes fanfic about a movie character that, ah, talks all . . . funny, like Heath Ledger's Joker, this, er, winds up happening. aND don'T EvEn MentIon dElIrIUm.


  • House of Leaves is possibly the most extreme example of this: multiple fonts, multiple colours, literally hundreds of footnotes, text which goes up, down, left, right, backwards, in spirals, sometimes only with one or two words printed per page and so on. It was so over-the-top the publisher's typesetters wouldn't even look at it, so the author Mark Danielewski had to typeset it himself.
  • Trainspotting uses slightly unusual textual layouts whilst the protagonist is hallucinating due to heroin withdrawal.
  • Stephen King uses this from time to time: different fonts and typefaces, the intrusion of handwriting into typed text, and a device appearing in most of his works which makes use of italics, parentheses and sudden line breaks to represent character thoughts, as in this example from The Shining:
    The question was meant to be rhetorical, but his mind answered it
    (you call it insanity)
  • Tristram Shandy is probably the Ur Example.
  • A favourite device of e.e. cummings, as can be seen here.
  • Terry Pratchett uses this quite often:
    • In Maskerade many readers were puzzled by a sentence fragment on the page, floating near the right margin saying "up here?". Near the bottom of the page a character is asked to demonstrate her skill in throwing her voice.
    • In Reaper Man Death who is famous for speaking in all caps meets his boss, who speaks in "caps" so huge and bold they took up an entire page. Pratchett stated in interviews that he spent quite a bit of time arranging the prose so that this would happen on a left hand page and thus be a surprise to the reader. Reaper Man also uses two different typefaces for the A story and B story.
    • When the god Om regains his strength at the end of Small Gods, he speaks with chapter and verse numbers inserted between his sentences.
  • The Demolished Man uses unusual type layout to depict telepathic conversations (sentences trailing down a page and interweaving like braids; a party game where the image formed by the words is a kind of charade clue).
  • In a style reminiscent of e. e. cummings, the novel Crank uses this on every page, with each chapter using a different format from the previous one. Its most prominent usage is in the use of space; the book is over five hundred pages long and takes a matter of hours to read.
  • Jasper Fforde uses this a lot in the Thursday Next books particularly. Justified in that much action takes place in the Book World, with eraser bullets that reduce literary characters to text, locations like the Text Sea, and so on.
    • Fforde also uses this to graphically show what's happening in the text. Mycroft's Bookworms in TheEyre Affair produce apostrophes' as a waste product, as well as amper&s, and when they get upset, they hyphen-ate. These marks show up in the text of the dialogue to illustrate this.
  • Parodied in one of the Monty Python books where there's a self-referential page of coloured letters on a black background.
  • Concrete poetry is a poetic genre based around this trope.
  • Penn & Teller's Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends is printed in such a way that if you flip the pages front to back it's full of large fonted black print but if you flip it back to front it's full of tiny red print. This is used to trick your friend into believing that a special pair of cardboard specs (included) make things magically appear.
  • Not sure if this counts, but artist Tom Phillips made an art book called A Humanent by altering copies of A Human Document, leaving only a few words visible per page and drawing a line to guide the reader in the correct word order.
  • The People Of Paper has an interesting one: some characters have the intrinsic ability to conceal their thoughts and actions from the author, and others can do so by lining their hat or their house with lead. In-text, this shows up as Censor Boxes over the concealed events (in some cases, entire pages of black).


  • Homestuck is all about this. Every character has their own unique typing style that fits their personality (the humans doing subtle things like dropping initial caps or using different emoticons, and the trolls favouring Leet Lingo), certain Arc Words are written in specific (occasionally flashing) colours or with an animated gif replacing one of the letters, and at one point a character doing something around the back of the narrator speaks to the reader through Alt Text. The ==> command that indicates a new page is even replaced with ======> for the troll arc, to reflect the change from the four main characters to the twelve main characters (count the bars).
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