My previous question was "Are paragraph spacing used for emphasis?" and that got me thinking even deeper about emphasizing.

I'd like to emphasize to create tension and make the reader continue reading. I'm writing a first page, and to do so (in my opinion) I want the reader to question the last part, and I want to emphasize that part.

I'd like to open my horizons a bit and (hopefully) discover some other ways to emphasize? Are there any other ways to emphasize paragraphs and sentences, other than changing the text itself (underline, bolding, etc) and adding spacing? Are there any benefits of each one?

  • 3
    Someone will write an answer explaining ways to emphasize without tricks like that, where the words you choose our the way you assemble them does the heavy lifting.
    – J.G.
    Dec 25, 2018 at 23:18
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    I often use specific phrasing to emphasize my ideas. Conciseness and short sentences can convey different things like anxiety, quick thinking, or a dramatic moment. Punctuation isn't always necessary to convey emphasis, I'll be interested in what answers come about.
    – BenjaminF
    Dec 25, 2018 at 23:24
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    Read some of your favorite books with an eye for how these authors grab your attention. You'll naturally gravitate to ways of emphasizing ideas that feel organic to you. They probably won't include underlines, bold or capitalization, though italics and exclamation points (usually limited to dialog) are still used in published work. Repetition can be effective. Placing information at the peak of action. There are many tools. Read, and make notes how your favorite authors do it. This is truly the best way to figure it out.
    – SFWriter
    Dec 26, 2018 at 2:07

3 Answers 3


I use the natural flow of the text to emphasize one thing or another. It is a part of the rhythm of the language.

In one scene I had, I italicized a couple of words in dialogue because the character was emphasizing them. It was important to him that the character he addressed understood what he was saying, defending choices he made that seemed most bizarre and counterintuitive to the questioner.

If you invert word order, that adds some emphasis to what is said in that sentence.

Tension ought not be a result of artificial means. You are telling a story, a character is doing something, learning something or failing to - trust your narrative.

As a reader, when I look at a new book, I often read the plot synopsis on the cover and then read the first few pages. If I am not intrigued by the character, setting or tone I will put it down. I connect with characters and enjoy making friends with them - this engagement is not the result of italics but fascinating characters.

Many years ago, I was reading a book set during the French Revolution and it had some interesting characters. I do not know what happened in the last third of it as they had executed the only character really worth exploring (young nobleman with a strong social conscience). I wanted to know how this fellow was going to resolve his conflict. The rest of the characters were fairly stock so less intriguing.

If that book had been filled with bold, italics and combinations of those, I would still have set it down when I did.

That said, inversion of expected word order is a reasonable way to stress a word or two and potentially encourage the reader to recall that phrase later.


The best writing is one that uses typographic markup sparingly. There are some agents and publishers who prefer manuscripts to be submitted in plain text! If your writing relies on italics, boldface, and a certain page layout, it won't work for those publishers.

The reason for publishers to demand plain text submissions is that the absence of markup is usually a sign of quality. A skillful writer can emphasize through their writing alone and doesn't need markup to do so. Consider the following examples:

I came home yesterday.

Yesterday, I came home. (emphasis on "yesterday")

I came home. Yesterday. Not on Sunday, as my wife expected. (even stronger emphasis on "yesterday")

Or these:

He walked down the road.

He ambled down the road. (emphasis through a less common word)

Slowly, placing his feet carefully, he quietly crept along the sidewalk towards the glowing red light. (emphasis through detail)

There are many other ways to put focus or emphasis on certain parts of your story. What I'd suggest is that you play with your passage, rephrase and reorder the words, sentences, even paragraphs, until your readers are led through your story in the way that you want.

If you have done that, and still feel that you need to emphasize a certain word, use italics. All other markup is unconventional and, in literary fiction, bad style. To me, boldface, all caps, underlined text, or changing font faces in fiction are a sure sign of a bad writer.


The way you emphasize depends on what you're trying to emphasize.

Italics are appropriate in dialogue, like in Rasdashan's example. If there's a chance a particular word or phrase might be overlooked, make it stand out. You could use lengthy sentences to emphasize panic. There's no mental "breath" for the reader, inducing a subconscious quicker read to get to the break. Use a metaphor to emphasize an unusual characteristic. Use alliteration to drive a point home.

Here's a simple example - I want to emphasize that time is passing agonizingly slow for my character who is waiting for something:

The plastic chair squeaked as she sat down. She checked the clock. The second hand was ticking so slowly. It was like it wasn't moving at all. She picked up a wrinkled magazine from the table to her right and flipped through the pages. She was bored. She put the magazine down. Was the clock even working?

Huh, well, the reader is bored, but not in the way the character is bored. Italics are used for emphasis of the slow time and the character's boredom, but this isn't the right scenario for that device.

The clock read 12:38pm. The plastic chair squeaked as she sat down. The clock read 12:38pm. The second hand ticked. Maybe. She picked up a wrinkled magazine from the table to her right. The clock read 12:39pm. Good. She flipped through the pages. The clock read 12:39pm. She put the magazine down. The clock read 12:40pm.

Here, I used both repetition and short sentences. She's bored, she's restless, she's annoyed. The reader starts to feel the same. What will the time read next? Will it be the same? Different? The short sentences might get tedious to read, but it's piquing the reader's curiosity - what is she waiting for? When will it happen?

So, in essence, there is a right and a wrong way to emphasize something, but no solid list of right and wrong ways to emphasize. Each has their own pros and cons. If you're struggling to find the right path to take, try re-writing your scene over in the various methods people have already suggested in the answers and comments. Then, pick the one that works best (or, if you're not sure, an outside reader can tell you how they felt in each version).

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