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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
typographical tricks of this nature.
It can be done for a variety
. A popular one
is to represent a character's mental state, e.g.
using cramped text to symbolize claustrophobia or feeling "trapped". Or, to just Think in Text, which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
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 Medium
. Sometimes used in Meta Fiction
and Scrapbook Stories
. If employed throughout a work it may be a kind of Constrained Writing
. See also Footnote Fever
(with which this sometimes overlaps), all lowercase letters
, No Punctuation Period
, Rainbow Speak
, Censor Box
, Bold Inflation
, Color-Coded for Your Convenience
and Page Turn Surprise
. May be used for Translation Punctuation
When adding examples, please be descriptive.
open/close all folders
- An original early ElfQuest comic had a hand-lettered foreword on the inside front cover in the shape of a wolf's head.
- 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.
- Used in Forward to illustrate River's unbalanced state of mind.
- "Riverthink" makes a guest appearance in Graveyard Shift, by the same author, to depict the message of the Prothean Beacon.
- Mark Z. Danielewski consistently does this with all his works. It seems that he views page composition equally as important in a story as the content of the plot.
- 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 Danielewski was forced to typeset it himself.
- Danielewski's next novel, Only Revolutions, makes use of other tricks like this: more extensive use of colours, a timeline sidebar in the left margin of every page, and perhaps most insanely, the fact that the book is actually two different narratives - half the text is printed upside-down, so if you flip the book around and start from the other side, you can read the same story from the other protagonist's perspective. And of course, all their narration is arranged erratically in general.
- The Fifty Year Sword only features a small handful of words per page and coloured quotation marks to indicate who is speaking.
- The Familiar, although not yet released, is supposedly going to be a 27-volume-long series with the first book being 880 pages long. It would be absolutely ridiculous coming from this author for all those pages to just be text played straight, not to mention how long it would take to write that much content, so it's pretty much expected by all of Danielewski's fans that he's going to be playing with the text in various ways throughout the extremely long piece.
- 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, including several unusual lines drawn to illustrate the "narrative line" of each volume and a completely black page after describing Parson Yorick's death..
- 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.
- In The City of Dreaming Books, right after the villain is revealed, he hands the main character a book which will "answer all his questions" on page 333. As he flips through the book, all pages are completely blank until he gets to page 333. The next two pages of the novel are completely filled with tiny letters that only say "You just have been poisoned. You just have been poisoned. You just have been poisoned. You just have been poisoned..." The next two pages of the novel are completely printed black with only a few words in white letters describing how he falls unconscious. You probably have to squint a bit and move the book close to your face to read it.
- The author does have a tendency to do this. In another of his books, The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, the character is approached by a giant spider. The onomatopoesia used to descripe this apporach is 'boom!' in constantly increasing letter size, until the word covers a complete page.
- 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.
- The two sequels to Crank and the rest of Ellen Hopkins's subsequent books follow the same formatting style.
- Good Omens mentions about a million styles of typography used for the title and multiple subtitles of Agnes Nutter's "nice and accurate" book of prophecies.
- Though if you've seen the title pages of sufficiently old books, you'll know this is Truth in Television.
- 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.
- In Search Of Adam by Caroline Smailes changes the placement of its words and shades of grey whenever Jude becomes obsessed over that thing in particular. For example when she's counting the words will zig-zag down the page.
- 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.
- 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).
- Harlan Ellison complained about one author doing this in a story he submitted to one of the Dangerous Visions anthologies. It had entire manuscript pages that went something like:
They tramped on through the day.
They tramped on through the night.
- Ellison rejected the story but bought a more conventional one by that author.
- On the other hand, he did publish Gahan Wilson's story whose "title" is a black blob, and which incorporates sketches of the blob getting bigger and bigger until it "eats" everybody by flowing over the text.
- And for that matter, Harlan himself has used the technique in a few stories ("Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", among others).
- The foreword to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is formatted to resemble a silhouette of a bomb.
- "The Mouse's Tale" in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland winds down the page as if it were a mouse's ''tail''
- Finnegan's Wake (naturally) has the occasional letter lying prone or supine or standing on its head, as well as sheet music interrupting the "narrative", a whole chapter spaced like an old classbook with two columns for marginalia and lots of footnotes, and special characters like triangles or squares standing in for some of the characters (sometimes. Maybe. It's hard to tell).
- Zettels Traum, Arno Schmidt's valiant (German-languagenote ) attempt at imitating the above has much of the same: multiple columns (frequently switching sides), very idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation throughout, as well as handwritten notes and blacked-out words, sentences or paragraphs (though to be fair, the novel was published as a facsimile version of the original typoscript, which the author never got around to preparing for print).
- The Raw Shark Texts, being essentially a book about words, does this a lot.
- When Samuel R. Delany's PoMo epic Dhalgren has the storyline branch, it doesn't follow one branch and then jump back to the other. Instead, both storylines are printed side-by-side in separate columns going down the page, often for dozens of pages, leaving it up to the reader to decide how best to absorb these simultaneous threads.
- Most books by Alasdair Gray will usually be normal formatted except for one section of it where the formatting goes so haywire as to make that section of the book unreadable (Gray most frequently uses the effect to represent one of his characters having a mental breakdown).
- In the ''Red Dwarf'' novel Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, a lengthy elevator ride down through the spaceship Red Dwarf's cargo levels is conveyed by repeating the word "down" almost every other line, until finally it appears written with each letter on a separate line:
- The parody RPG HoL is entirely handwritten, as if someone took the notes they'd scrawled on a napkin for their role-playing game and just printed them as is.
- 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).
- At one point, Homestuck splits into two pages of the comic per web page, displaying them as two different columns, which allows larger pictures to be shown with half of their pieces on one column and half of them on the other. Naturally, the ==> arrows on the left column tilt upwards, since they direct the reader to the other side of the web page.
- Voldemorts Children uses different colors and styles for each character's speech, and for the main character, Harry, the color/style changes over the course of the story to reflect Harry's changing thoughts.
- SCP Foundation has numerous articles where the typical format is disrupted by the In-Universe effects of the object involved.
- Time Cube changes the font, font size, usage of italics, etc. every single segment of the page. It also uses red and/or blue colored text fairly regularly, with occasionally other colors - the effect is dizzying.