I am fascinated by the idea of how to convey, in the written form, as much detail of expressive nuance as you originally intended in your head (i.e. what you hear when first coming up with it). I pretty much always hear a voice in my head when I'm writing things down, and also later, when I'm read things (especially my own writing, as I know what I'd intended to say, complete with sound and pictures, in my head!).

I usually imagine things with lots of detail: like intonation and tone and even accent. Of the possible ways to convey that, we have basic formatting (bold, italic, underline, different typefaces), we have context and metaphors, structure and figures of speech and references, etc. There's also the gift/curse of varying internal/external contexts - the reader's the writer's, the story's intended context and the possibly-wrongly conveyed one. These all serve to color an otherwise clean string of letters/words/sentences with nothing but their dictionary definitions. And because it's impossible to read almost any text without all these combining (especially context) these 'methods' are basic, tried, and expected.

And in electronic form, especially online, text can be coloured with all sorts of new nuances. I use them myself; in forum discussion. Smilies and emoticons. And animated GIFs, even, which can say a lot more than words when used well - an extension of quoting from some movie or novel, etc.

And when I'm writing (no matter what type - I do many forms, including articles and formal but persuasive-style fundraising appeal letters to large funding bodies) - I wish to convey to reader, as much as possible, the nuances that I intend.

So my question is:

Are there any (published) writers who have been pushing the limits of visual representation of expressive nuance in the written form? Using even things such as smilies, traditionally unacceptable amounts of italics/bold/underline and maybe heavy use of punctuation (to represent things like pauses in speech or to heighten important words by setting them up, or just otherwise representing the rhythm/character of how one would orate the words), using traditionally excessive amounts of commas, colons, dashes, and the like; and also putting words in capitals and maybe asterisks around words - so all in all, even perhaps starting to become almost pictographic/animated, so to speak?

To give an analogy (I'm a music expert): Pierre Boulez, a modern classical composer, pushed the boundaries he faced in music to 'neurotic' levels where the instructions on the page (dynamics, accents, articulation) almost became too much information for the performing musician to take in due to the physical, real-time nature of the medium. (But still possible, and it's what he intended.)

And then, philosophically (please let me know if this is crossing the line and this part will be removed), rather than seeking some ultimate representation of expression in the written text form, should we instead embrace the fact that the form has its limitations, and even celebrate the fact that it can be interpreted/experienced 'in different ways by the reader' and 'without excessive spoon feeding in nuanced textual "seasoning" ', as something positive which should not be fought against?

And at what point does this 'seasoning' surpass the definition of literature and start to become another art form / hybrid art form (closer to ones that do give explicit nuance, like picture book, comic, voice, film)?


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    other than Emily Dickinson and her crazy dashes? Apr 23, 2013 at 17:21
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    I have to agree that this question is far too broad. It's also sorta asking for an open-ended list of writers who meet your criteria. I think. It'll generate a discussion, but no answers useful to future visitors. Can you pare this down to a more focused question? Apr 23, 2013 at 18:29
  • Yes it's a mess, sigh...TBH, I am open to suggestions as to what best form it may take in an acceptable, streamlined single-final-question'd way - still setting the tone for the larger issue/context (especially so as to not make existing answers moot), but really simplifying it into a useful question, to get a useful direct answer. Thanks for any suggestions
    – user5000
    Apr 23, 2013 at 21:29
  • My succinct advice: Treat writing as utilizing language, language as semantics, semantics as absolutes. In other words, rely only on the meanings of the letter-strings, and unless you're writing poetry, don't even bother how two words sound together. Imagine you'll be read in plain ASCII text. That's for the initial writing. Then for editing/rewriting: Worry about how it looks and sounds, hollistically. Don't dwell on the finer details but do strive for what feels generally more pleasant in representation.
    – Mussri
    Apr 23, 2013 at 21:44
  • @Mussri edited the question, and it's a good edit - makes things a little clearer. I think the problem is a conceptual one, though - you're asking for examples. Perhaps you can think of a way to ask how to do what you want rather than examples of it? Apr 24, 2013 at 2:35

2 Answers 2


It's a sign of a poor writer if they have to use color and weird visual hints and the likes to express nuances of the scene on regular basis. There are writers who can use that skillfully and for real impact (bows to sir Pratchett with his full-page "YES") but even they use it sparingly - or all the impact will be lost.

Thing is, if you go into too convoluted visual hints, they will start detracting from the story. They will kill immersion, and immersion is one of the most important factors in a good story.

A talented writer will normally approach this task from opposite side: build mood. Physical details are not that important. As long as they fulfill the premise, their precise layout or detail may be arbitrary. It's the feel of the moment one must convey, and this is done by painting minute, apparently insignificant details that affect the whole. A drop of sweat on someone's forehead. A ticking of grandfather clock suddenly piercing through unexpected silence. A drop of dew on a straw of grass, refracting sunlight into a spark of rainbow. Give a couple of details like that, and the scene becomes much more vivid, detailed and rich than most convoluted notation of nuances could make it.

ps. Shell out a couple dollars, visit Deviantart and find a couple amateur artists accepting cheap commissions. Order pictures that follow exactly textual descriptions you provide, and then boggle at how wrong - how totally not how you imagined it they are. It came to me as a shock to realize how different people can imagine the same, very detailed description entirely differently - and still true to the description!

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    Ahhh, interesting. What about in the case of writing (non long form) articles, or forum posts in an intelligent-user, but informal topic (where you still want to be as communicative/conversational/dynamically eloquent as possible)? In these cases, mood is not important (like yes it obviously is in long form, both fiction and non fiction). Also, super cool suggestion about deviantart, I should try that :).
    – user5000
    Apr 23, 2013 at 21:23
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    Then you definitely won't have space and time to establish the visual dictionary necessary for that task. Unless the visual hint is self-explanatory or well-established (e.g. USING CAPS FOR LOUDNESS) you will need a paragraph or more to convey that the lilac text is sensual and the underlined rings with echo. It will be easier to give textual descriptions of the nuances than to first establish the meaning of the notation and then follow up with text in that notation.
    – SF.
    Apr 24, 2013 at 12:13

Not quite a tone of voice, but I remember two book series where telepathy was distinguished from normal speech by a special syntax. In one of them phrases spoken telepathically were in cursive and in the second one, if I remember correctly, they were prepended by a colon (:).

One of these series was Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle and the other one might have been Trudi Canavan's Age of the Five trilogy.

  • If someone can either confirm this or correct me, please do.
    – user31389
    Feb 19, 2018 at 17:02

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