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Unconventional Formatting

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A literary trope
in which the text is arranged on the page in strange ways, including but not limited to: tfel-ot-thgir (ni nrestseW skrow), bottom-to-top, reversed, uʍop-ǝpᴉsdn 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". 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 non-trivial amount 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. Related to Double-Sided Book (a book with two flipped sides), just on a smaller scale, and Page-Turn Surprise (when a Cliffhanger's resolution is on the next page).

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. Interface Screw is the Video Game equivalent. May be used for Translation Punctuation.

Note: When adding examples, please be descriptive.


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    Comic Books 
  • An original early ElfQuest comic had a hand-lettered foreword on the inside front cover in the shape of a wolf's head.


  • "The Mouse's Tale" in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland winds down the page as if it were a mouse's ''tail''
  • James Dickey uses a black page in the middle of his poem "Apollo" to represent the astronauts' passing behind the moon and the consequent communications blackout until they returned.
  • The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester use 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 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.
  • Concrete poetry is a poetic genre based around this trope.
  • In The Crew of the Copper-Colored Cupids print stories, Lord Thymon's speech is rendered in bold and alternating lower- and uppercase, LiKe ThIs, in order to emphasises his eldritch nature. On a few occasions, other "interdimensional" sounds or happenings have been marked out by typographical oddities, such as enormous, rainbow-coloured text to render the "sound" of something ripping through the fabric of reality.
  • 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.
    • The Fifty Year Sword only features a small handful of words per page and coloured quotation marks to indicate who is speaking.
    • The Familiar uses different fonts and layouts depending on the character who is the focus of the chapter - and there's plenty of unusual occurrences too, like words falling like raindrops, forests made out of # symbols or, most notably, animals shaped out of words and phrases describing them.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • A favourite device of E. E. Cummings, as can be seen here.
  • 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, Ellison himself has used the technique in a few stories. (Examples include "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes," "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" and "The Deathbird," among others.)
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close does this. Some words are circled in red, and entire pages are left blank, among other things.
  • Finnegans 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-language) 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).
  • "Die Trichter" (The Funnels) by Christian Morgenstern, in which the words are arranged in the shape of a funnel. (Surely the most widely known example, at least in Germany, but not the only one.)
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Harsh Generation (inspired by Dhalgren, above) features crossed-out sections, idiosyncratic punctuation, and sentences that stop abruptly, including the novel's closing line.
  • 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.
  • In a style reminiscent of E. E. Cummings, the novel Crank by Ellen Hopkins 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.
  • 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)
  • In the setting of K. J. Parker's novella "Purple and Black", purple ink is made from very rare and expensive ingredients and is nearly impossible to counterfeit, so it is reserved for Imperial missives to help verify their authenticity. The novella is an Epistolary Story told through a series of back-and-forth letters between the Emperor and his top General. Appropriately, in the original printing of the novella, all of the Emperor's letters are printed in purple ink. (This is not the case for the version later printed in the Academic Exercises anthology, though.)
  • 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).
  • Parodied in one of the Monty Python books where there's a self-referential page of coloured letters on a black background.
  • The Raw Shark Texts, being essentially a book about words, does this a lot.
  • 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:
  • Ripper (2014) is written in third-person POV, except for the passages in first-person from Indiana's abductor. This part of the text is italicized.
  • 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. (And then a miscommunication meant that this didn't happen in the paperback, even though he'd written another scene so it would.) 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.
    • Golems speak, or initially write, in a typeface suggestive of the Hebrew alphabet. What they write is also suspiciously Yiddish in intonation and vocabulary.
  • In addition to Translation Punctuation being used to represent languages such as Spanish, Greek, and Hindi, the Terra Ignota books contain two examples of the text being divided into two columns: the left column contains a long speech that one character is giving, while the right column describes the actions of other characters while the speech is taking place.
  • In The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, the character is approached by a giant spider. The onomatopoeia used to describe this approach is 'boom!' in constantly increasing letter size, until the word covers a complete page.
  • 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 The Eyre 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.
  • Trainspotting uses slightly unusual textual layouts whilst the protagonist is hallucinating due to heroin withdrawal.
  • 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.
  • The foreword to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is formatted to resemble a silhouette of a bomb.
  • One of the books in the Wayside School series involved a student standing on his head. The text of one paragraph was flipped upside down.

  • Most versions of The Talmud are arranged like this, with each page containing the main text of the Mishnah and Gemara at the center, with numerous commentaries and indices wrapping around them in smaller text sizes.

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • In Of Their Shadows Deep the sentence "You Walk Down The Stone Steps Through The Trees To The Woods Below" is arranged like a staircase. Also, after you answer a riddle, its text is rearranged to form a picture of the answer.
  • SIGNALIS: One of the notes you can find is written right-to-left and top-to-bottom in monospaced capitals. It is a clue to solving a puzzle, so before you can work out what it means, you have to work out what it says. It helps that the right-most column clearly says EMPRESS.

  • In El Goonish Shive, Diane's magical charisma boost is initially indicated by using a distinctive unusual font whenever the spell is active.
  • 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.
  • Voldemort's 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.

    Web Original 
  • Lights in the Darkness - a story published in the Guild Companion, uses three different fonts of the same typeface to give a conversation of three people. Italic is a small child, the normal typeface is the granny and late in the story, the grandfather is depicted with bold letters.
  • SCP Foundation has numerous articles where the typical format of database entries is disrupted by the In-Universe effects of the object involved. See the Foundation's subpage on Painting the Medium for examples.
  • Solar Wind utilizes this everywhere. The story uses Discord's programmer formatting to convey its protagonist, Tav's, thoughts, as well as emojis to represent the voices of other characters.