The Visual Nature of Text

White space, Strike-throughs, and Fonts, Oh My!

I have a background in graphic design and illustration, so I’m naturally drawn to the way text looks on the page (i.e. font, font size, negative space, paragraph breaks, etc.).  Generally, the physical text on the page is something we writers think of as invisible. It delivers the story, but it isn’t a craft-tool to help communicate the story.

Or is it?

Did you see what I did there? I used a paragraph break and white space to draw attention to a question that I wanted you to notice. A question I wanted to have some punch and resonance. In fact, many subtle formatting techniques are very familiar to us and you probably already use them. Have you ever used italics to indicate to the reader they’re moving into flashback or a dream sequence? Or maybe put a quip of internal thought in parenthesis? (Dude, I totally do that!). We’re being graphic designers here. We’re using the visual nature of the text to communicate information to the reader.

Let’s push this concept further. As graphic design has evolved and become a more prominent part of our daily experience, writers too have begun to experiment with how text and white space can enhance their storytelling.  The following are examples of some ways I’ve seen writers use design principals to enhance their stories (it’s not an exhaustive list, but one to get us started).


At this past summer’s VCFA residency Linda Sue Park talked about her dual-POV novel and how the printers used different font colors to indicate separate speakers, creating an unconscious trigger for the reader. Lauren Myracle also uses this effect in her instant-message format novels TTYL and TTFN. Colors and fonts become directly associated with characters to help ease the reader into the format:



The technique I used above of drawing attention to a particular action, question, or idea, is pushed slightly further in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls. Anderson uses right justification and ellipsis, in addition to white space and paragraph breaks, to create impact:

Or look at Janne Teller’s Nothing, which uses a page turn and an entire page to isolate the moment:



I’ve seen several books recently use the technique of strike-throughs as a way to communicate information about character. For example strike-throughs can be a great way show how a character censors herself by showing what they think and what they want to edit. But this technique can also work on a visually metaphorical level. In Wintergirls, Lia’s self-censorship becomes so abundant as the story progresses that they almost seem violent. They start to look like visual scars on the pristine white page:


In some cases the use of text becomes a visual statement, perhaps not even meant to be read. The following three pages from Wintergirls repeats the same three words “Must. Not. Eat.” over and over and becomes a visual metaphor rather than a section to be read:

And sometimes there’s no text at all. I believe there are several pages in one of the Twilight books that shows the passing of months with blank pages and a month-title (I’ve only heard about this, I haven’t read it). Or check out this this dramatic moment of Wintergirls:

Can you imagine turning the page and finding it blank? It’s visually startling. It creates an emotional response!

Or look at these whimsical and visual graphic design depictions of sounds and actions in Robert Paul Weston’s Zorgamazoo:

And then sometimes the text starts to incorporate actual illustrations, like the found objects in Jandy Nelson’s The Sky Is Everywhere:


So clearly text, whitespace, font, and design have a lot to offer in regards to storytelling. But when does it go TOO FAR? I personally love the things Laurie Halse Anderson does in Wintergirls, but I’ve heard criticism that it breaks some readers from the fictive dream, drawing too much attention to itself. And though I didn’t have this experience with Wintergirls, I did have it when reading Zorgamazoo. So where do we draw the line between leaving the design to the designers or using it in our stories?

With all this in mind, I have a few questions to throw out for discussion:

Have you ever used a graphic design technique in your story to create an effect (big or small)? What was it and how did it work?

Can you add to my list above of techniques and tools used by other writers in their books? The above list is clearly only the beginning, and I’d love to hear more examples! (Both successful and unsuccessful).

And lastly, where do you personally draw the line on using design in the stories you write and in the stories you read? When does it start to take away from the fictive dream and the reading experience?









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6 responses to “The Visual Nature of Text”

  1. lexacain says:

    I never thought about text like that. I loved all the examples you provided, especially the one by Laurie Halse Anderson. Thanks for the great post! 🙂

  2. catugeau says:

    loved this ! I used to work with type for a NYC magazine a million years ago and fell in love with the ‘art’ of text and fonts…..loved being reminded. 😉

  3. Addy Rae says:

    In ‘The Tale of Genji’ (world’s oldest novel? This is debated.) There is a blank chapter, and when the next chapter starts Genji is dead, it’s in the future, and his descendents are talking about him. There is debate about whether the blank chapter was lost or if it was intended to be blank, but it makes a statement!

  4. Demetra says:

    Ingrid! I love this post. I have a BFA in Graphic Design and I’m a writer. This is awesome!

  5. It’s not as dramatic as your examples, but ‘The One and Only Ivan’ by Katherine Applegate has lots of white space and the beginning few chapters are one page with lowercase italics giving a sort of subtitle, but more of a keyword, and then Ivan’s thoughts in standard font. It’s subtle but effective in conveying Ivan’s character–direct and concise.

    In picture books, Donald Crews uses typeface to show rain in his book ‘Rain’.

  6. Emma says:

    I am curious about how you design the effect as in your brilliant ‘breaking the rules’ example. Can Word be used to create something like that?

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