Create a DSL for CSS like syntax for TUIs #

In this article, we will create a simple DSL (domain specific language) for CSS like syntax to declaratively create styling for TUI apps. You might be thinking, but why? 🤔

The motivation for doing this comes from having built a TUI library in the r3bl_rs_utils crate and wanting to make it more ergonomic for developers, so that it is easier to use and familiar to declarative styling from CSS, etc.

🦜 What is a TUI? The best way to grok it is to see one in action.

  1. Clone this repo (for the r3bl-cmdr crate) to your local or remote machine.
  2. Run cargo run (in r3bl-cmdr folder) to see it doing its thing. Works great over SSH too!
  3. Check out the source code in this repo, to get a handle on how to use the r3bl_rs_utils::tui module.

This TUI library allows developers to build “rich” text user interface apps in Rust, which are fully async, and leverages ideas from CSS, React, and Redux. Once we built the library, we wanted to make it easier for developer to declaratively create styling and even layouts, rather than having to do it imperatively.

💭 In frontend web development, we take it for granted that we can describe things declaratively rather than imperatively. Anytime we use CSS, JSX, or HTML we are doing this. We are used to telling the computer what we would like it to produce, and it figures out how to go about making this happen. There are similar declarative technologies in desktop and mobile GUI toolkits as well.

What is a style, and how is it used? #

What exactly is a style? It is used to format some text that is painted to the terminal. This is done by specifying the text’s color, background color, and other attributes (bold, underline, etc).

In this article, we will create a simple DSL just to describe a single style. But this next section gives you context around where this style is used in the r3bl_rs_utils::tui library.

Life of a style #

As an aside, before getting into making the syntax declarative, let’s look at how a style is actually used in the r3bl_rs_utils::tui library. The following is a whirlwind overview of how the r3bl_rs_utils::tui engine itself works. It is not meant to be an in depth examination or explanation, so hold on for the blast of information that is about to follow 💨.

First we have to make a stylesheet. This stylesheet holds 2 styles style1 and style2. We will track style1’s journey in this section.

We currently have to make the stylesheet imperatively, but will be converted to declarative in the near future 😃. More articles about DSLs are on the horizon.

fn create_stylesheet(&mut self) -> CommonResult<Stylesheet> {
  // Turquoise:  Color::Rgb { r: 51, g: 255, b: 255 }
  // Pink:       Color::Rgb { r: 252, g: 157, b: 248 }
  // Blue:       Color::Rgb { r: 55, g: 55, b: 248 }
  // Faded blue: Color::Rgb { r: 85, g: 85, b: 255 }
    let mut stylesheet = Stylesheet::new();

      style! {
        id: style1
        margin: 1
        color_bg: Color::Rgb { r: 55, g: 55, b: 248 }
      style! {
        id: style2
        margin: 1
        color_bg: Color::Rgb { r: 85, g: 85, b: 255 }


Then we have to use this style in a few different places. Let’s first use in to create a (flexbox like) layout. This is currently done imperatively. We intend to create a JSX like declarative syntax for this layout engine in the near future 😃. Even more articles about DSLs are on the horizon.

The following snippet is a layout being created (imperatively right now). And the stylesheet is attached into the layout engine, which is a struct called TWSurface or terminal window surface. It stores some information about the terminal “window” (like available rows and columns, and it is manages when window resize events happen, and even manages user input events); it also has the stylesheet attached to it.

And then create_main_container() is called. This seems important too, so let’s look at that next.

let mut tw_surface = TWSurface {
  stylesheet: self.create_stylesheet()?,
tw_surface.surface_start(TWSurfaceProps {
  pos: (0, 0).into(),
  size: window_size,
  .create_main_container(&mut tw_surface, state, shared_store)

You can think of creating a layout using flexbox containers or boxes (TWBox).

  1. You first create the surface that holds all the boxes. This surface takes up the full width and height of the terminal’s window (TerminalWindow).
  2. Then inside of this surface (TWSurface), you can add a “main container” box (TWBox) which takes up the full space of the terminal window.
  3. You can then add two other boxes (TWBox) which will be columns that are 50% width each.
  4. They will be arranged from left to right (horizontal direction, or Direction::Horizontal).
  5. Inside of each column box, you can provide a Component to actually paint the content & even handle user input events.
  6. And ll of this happening asynchronously.

Here’s the snippet that creates this “main container” box. No mention of styles here. But they are attached to the tw_surface which is passed into create_left_col() & create_right_col().

async fn create_main_container<'a>(
  &mut self, tw_surface: &mut TWSurface, state: &'a AppWithLayoutState,
  shared_store: &'a SharedStore<AppWithLayoutState, AppWithLayoutAction>,
) -> CommonResult<()> {
    tw_surface.box_start(TWBoxProps {
      id: CONTAINER_ID.into(),
      dir: Direction::Horizontal,
      req_size: (100, 100).try_into()?,
      .create_left_col(tw_surface, state, shared_store)
      .create_right_col(tw_surface, state, shared_store)

For now, we will just look at one of the columns - create_left_col(). After all this article is about DSL to build a single style and not about how to build TUIs. Here’s the snippet to create this column, and it does use a style from the stylesheet (style1) that we made earlier.

async fn create_left_col<'a>(
  &mut self, tw_surface: &mut TWSurface, state: &'a AppWithLayoutState,
  shared_state: &'a SharedStore<AppWithLayoutState, AppWithLayoutAction>,
) -> CommonResult<()> {
    tw_surface.box_start(TWBoxProps {
      styles: tw_surface.stylesheet.find_styles_by_ids(vec!["style1"]),
      id: COL_1_ID.into(),
      dir: Direction::Vertical,
      req_size: (50, 100).try_into()?,

    if let Some(shared_component) = self.component_registry.get(COL_1_ID) {
      let current_box = tw_surface.current_box()?;
      let queue = shared_component
        .render(&self.has_focus, current_box, state, shared_state)
      tw_surface.render_buffer += queue;


Going from imperative to declarative style declaration #

Now that we have that context out of the way, let’s look at a single style in more detail.

This is how we can imperatively create a style using the r3bl_rs_utils::tui module.

use crossterm::style::*;
use r3bl_rs_utils::*;

fn make_a_style_imperatively(id: &str) -> Style {
  let black = Color::Rgb { r: 0, g: 0, b: 0 };
  Style {
    id: id.to_string(),
    dim: true,
    bold: true,
    color_fg: Some(black.into()),
    color_bg: Some(black.into()),

Once created in this manner, it can be added to a stylesheet, which can then be attached to a TWSurface. And then it can be used to style things in boxes (TWBox).

We would like to express this declaratively, like so.

use crossterm::style::*;
use r3bl_rs_utils::*;

fn make_a_style_declaratively(id: &str) -> Style {
  style! {
    id: style2
    attrib: [dim, bold]
    margin: 1
    color_fg: Color::Red
    color_bg: Color::Rgb { r: 0, g: 0, b: 0 }

The rest of this article will be devoted to making this happen using procedural macros (function like).

What are procedural macros #

For an introduction to procedural macros, please read our article on Procedural Macros. Here are some snippets from that article.

🔮 Procedural macros are a way for you to extend the Rust compiler and provide plugins that you can use to extend the language. They are really powerful and require some more work to setup in an existing project (you have to create a new library create just for them and they all have to be declared in the file). Here are the key benefits of procedural macros:

  • Minimize the amount of manual work you have to do in order to generate boilerplate code 🎉. This is similar to annotation processing in Java and Kotlin.
  • You can create your own domain specific language like React JSX in Rust 🎉. Create your own DSL (domain spe cific language) like in Kotlin and babel and JavaScript.

🪄 Declarative macros have many limitations (eg: they can’t work with generics) but are easier to use. If you have simple use cases they work great, since they are so easy to write. Here are some resources to help you w/ learning declarative macros.

  1. Declarative macros included in this article’s repo (but not covered in this article)
  2. Little book of Rust macros
  3. Great YT video on declarative macros

Here’s a summary:

Macro type Capabilities & limitations
Declarative Can’t handle generics, patterns capture items as wholes and can’t be broken down in the macro body
Procedural - function like Operates on the code passed inside parenthesis of invocation to produce new token stream.
Procedural - derive Can’t touch token stream of annotated struct or enum, only add new token stream below; can declare helper attributes
Procedural - attribute Like function-like, replaces token stream of annotated item (not just struct or enum)

Define the syntax #

The fun part of creating a DSL is coming up w/ whatever syntax you want to allow developers to use. This is a very liberating, empowering, and creative exercise. You don’t have to accept the language keywords as they are. You are free to make your own! Rust is awesome!

To meet the goal of being an ergonomic API, the tui library leverages the mental model that people already possess coming from web, or Android, etc. of declaratively creating styling. And then specifying that some component uses that style. We will do the same while taking the unique constraints of a text user interface (that only renders to the terminal) into account. Fun times!

A style is made up of the following things, and is intended to style text that is going to be painted to the terminal.

style! {
  id:       style1                   // (req) unique id of the style
  attrib:   [dim, bold]              // (opt) array of attributes for styling text
  margin:   1                        // (opt) top, bottom, left, right margin
  color_fg: Color::Red               // (opt) Foreground color (specified via enum)
  color_bg: Color::Rgb {r:0,g:0,b:0} // (opt) Background color (specified via struct)

Let’s break this down into more specifics, so that we can build the parser for the syntax next.

  1. The id is required. The value is going to be turned into a string. So the value is a literal which can be anything that can be turned into a string.
  2. The attrib field is optional. When you do provide a value for it, this looks like an array of attributes. Here’s the full list of these attributes: dim, bold, underline, reverse, hidden, strikethrough.
  3. The margin field is optional. When you do provide a value for it, this looks like an integer. The value is the number of spaces to add to the top, down, left, and right of the text.
  4. The foreground color is optional. It can take an enum (Color::Red) or a struct (Color::Rgb {r:0,g:0,b:0}).
  5. The background color is optional. It can take an enum (Color::Red) or a struct (Color::Rgb {r:0,g:0,b:0}).

📜 Here’s the production version of the style! procedural macro: make_style()

You can play around w/ the syntax that you want to be able to parse. It takes some iterating in order to be ergonomic. It helps to just write out a lot of different ways to express this information and see what feels the best.

A lot of what feels the best will be biased by whatever style that you might be used to, based on your background. This is another reason why the ability to create your own DSLs in Rust is so awesome! You can just extend the language in ways that you would like code to be expressed regardless of whatever keywords come “out of the box” w/ Rust.

Even if you change it later, it is good to start w/ something to aim for. If we aim for nothing, we won’t hit anything 🎯.

Parse the syntax #

Now that we have an idea of what the thing we want to parse looks like, let’s parse it. The rough approach that we can take to parsing this is just go ahead and try and read things that we expect to see one after another. If it fails, then the compiler will generate a warning letting us know that something has gone wrong. In this sense, it is fairly straightforward to parse the syntax. However, there are a lot of details we need to take care of while we are attempting to read the next token in the stream, since things can be optional, they can be nested, etc.

Let’s start w/ a few things to get us going. First we will need a struct in which we can store the things that we have parsed from the token stream. This struct basically holds all the meta data that we will need to generate the code (which is just auto generating the imperative code we’ve already seen above).

/// Docs:
#[derive(Debug, Clone)]
pub(crate) struct StyleMetadata {
  pub id: Ident,                /* Only required field. */
  pub attrib_vec: Vec<Attrib>,  /* Attributes are optional. */
  pub margin: Option<UnitType>, /* Optional. */
  pub color_fg: Option<Expr>,   /* Optional. */
  pub color_bg: Option<Expr>,   /* Optional. */

Here’s an enum that we use to represent the various attributes that we can have.

#[derive(Debug, Clone, PartialEq, Eq)]
pub(crate) enum Attrib {

So far so good. Now we can implement the Parse trait for this struct so that we can have syn take the token stream and turn it into a StyleMetadata struct.

impl Parse for StyleMetadata {
  fn parse(input: ParseStream) -> Result<Self> {
    let mut metadata = StyleMetadata {
      id: Ident::new("tbd", Span::call_site()),
      attrib_vec: Vec::new(),
      margin: None,
      color_fg: None,
      color_bg: None,

    // TODO: implement these functions below.
    parse_id(&input, &mut metadata)?;
    parse_optional_attrib(&input, &mut metadata)?;
    parse_optional_margin(&input, &mut metadata)?;
    parse_optional_color_fg(&input, &mut metadata)?;
    parse_optional_color_bg(&input, &mut metadata)?;


With this stubbed out, we can have syn do something like this in our procedural macro.

pub fn fn_proc_macro_impl(input: proc_macro::TokenStream) -> proc_macro::TokenStream {
  let style_metadata: StyleMetadata = syn::parse_macro_input!(input);
  // TODO: implement the function below.

To implement those parse_* methods we saw above, we need to create a set of custom keywords for our syntax.

/// [syn custom keywords docs](
pub(crate) mod kw {

With that out of the way, we can implement each of the functions. Here’s the simplest one. Since the id is required, we can just go for it. If it fails, then the compiler will complain that id is missing.

// Parse id (required).
fn parse_id(input: &ParseStream, metadata: &mut StyleMetadata) -> Result<()> {
  let lookahead = input.lookahead1();
  if lookahead.peek(kw::id) {
    let id = input.parse::<Ident>()?; = id;
  call_if_true!(DEBUG, println!("🚀 id: {:?}",;

The next one is more difficult, since we are dealing w/ optional attributes that can be parsed. Also the things being parsed come in an array and there can be a bunch of different ones.

// Parse attrib (optional).
fn parse_optional_attrib(input: &ParseStream, metadata: &mut StyleMetadata) -> Result<()> {
  let lookahead = input.lookahead1();
  if lookahead.peek(kw::attrib) {

    let expr_array: ExprArray = input.parse()?;
    for item in expr_array.elems {
      if let Expr::Path(ExprPath {
        attrs: _,
        qself: _,
        path: Path { segments, .. },
      }) = item
        let PathSegment {
          arguments: _,
        } = segments.first().unwrap();
        match ident.as_str().as_ref() {
          "bold" => metadata.attrib_vec.push(Attrib::Bold),
          "dim" => metadata.attrib_vec.push(Attrib::Dim),
          "underline" => metadata.attrib_vec.push(Attrib::Underline),
          "reverse" => metadata.attrib_vec.push(Attrib::Reverse),
          "hidden" => metadata.attrib_vec.push(Attrib::Hidden),
          "strikethrough" => metadata.attrib_vec.push(Attrib::Strikethrough),
          _ => panic!("🚀 unknown attrib: {}", ident),

    call_if_true!(DEBUG, println!("🚀 attrib_vec: {:?}", metadata.attrib_vec));

Finally, the following are fairly naive implementations of the rest of the required functions. And I say naive, because we don’t really support handling colors that are passed in a variable. We currently only support Color enum and Rgb struct. But it is feasible that a variable can be passed in which holds either. We will leave this implementation for another article.

// Parse margin (optional).
fn parse_optional_margin(input: &ParseStream, metadata: &mut StyleMetadata) -> Result<()> {
  let lookahead = input.lookahead1();
  if lookahead.peek(kw::margin) {
    let lit_int = input.parse::<LitInt>()?;
    let margin_int: UnitType = lit_int.base10_parse().unwrap();
    metadata.margin = Some(margin_int);
    call_if_true!(DEBUG, println!("🚀 margin: {:?}", &metadata.margin));

// Parse color_fg (optional).
fn parse_optional_color_fg(input: &ParseStream, metadata: &mut StyleMetadata) -> Result<()> {
  let lookahead = input.lookahead1();
  if lookahead.peek(kw::color_fg) {
    let color_expr = input.parse::<Expr>()?;
    metadata.color_fg = Some(color_expr);
    call_if_true!(DEBUG, println!("🚀 color_fg: {:#?}", metadata.color_fg));


// Parse color_bg (optional).
fn parse_optional_color_bg(input: &ParseStream, metadata: &mut StyleMetadata) -> Result<()> {
  let lookahead = input.lookahead1();
  if lookahead.peek(kw::color_bg) {
    let color_expr = input.parse::<Expr>()?;
    metadata.color_bg = Some(color_expr);
    call_if_true!(DEBUG, println!("🚀 color_bg: {:#?}", metadata.color_bg));


With the parsing out of the way, we can now proceed to the code generation.

Generate the code #

Revisiting our procedural macro function, we can now generate the code.

pub fn fn_proc_macro_impl(input: proc_macro::TokenStream) -> proc_macro::TokenStream {
  let style_metadata: StyleMetadata = parse_macro_input!(input);

This is much more straightforward than parsing the syntax, thanks to quote!.

pub(crate) fn code_gen(
  StyleMetadata {id, attrib_vec, margin, color_fg, color_bg}: StyleMetadata,
) -> proc_macro::TokenStream {
  let has_attrib_bold = attrib_vec.contains(&Attrib::Bold);
  let has_attrib_dim = attrib_vec.contains(&Attrib::Dim);
  let has_attrib_underline = attrib_vec.contains(&Attrib::Underline);
  let has_attrib_reverse = attrib_vec.contains(&Attrib::Reverse);
  let has_attrib_hidden = attrib_vec.contains(&Attrib::Hidden);
  let has_attrib_strikethrough = attrib_vec.contains(&Attrib::Strikethrough);

  let id_str = format!("{}", id);

  let maybe_margin_expr = match margin {
    Some(margin_int) => {
      quote! {
        margin: Some(#margin_int),
    None => quote! {},

  let maybe_color_fg_expr = match color_fg {
    Some(color_expr) => {
      quote! {
        color_fg: Some(crossterm::style::#color_expr.into()),
    None => quote! {},

  let maybe_color_bg_expr = match color_bg {
    Some(color_expr) => {
      quote! {
        color_bg: Some(crossterm::style::#color_expr.into()),
    None => quote! {},

  quote! {
    r3bl_rs_utils::Style {
      id: #id_str.to_string(),
      bold: #has_attrib_bold,
      dim: #has_attrib_dim,
      underline: #has_attrib_underline,
      reverse: #has_attrib_reverse,
      hidden: #has_attrib_hidden,
      strikethrough: #has_attrib_strikethrough,
      .. Default::default()

Exporting it #

This is the simplest part of our journey. In our procedural macro crate, we have do something like this.

extern crate proc_macro;
mod make_style;
use proc_macro::TokenStream;

pub fn style(input: TokenStream) -> TokenStream { make_style::fn_proc_macro_impl(input) }

📜 Here’s the production version of the style! procedural macro: make_style()

Wrapping up #

This article just shows how to handle a single style. And it has room for improvement (being able to handle variables that hold color values in them).

In the future we will expand this DSL to include more features like generating the entire stylesheet declaratively. And then move on to creating JSX like syntax in Rust for layout stuff in the tui module as well. More articles to follow based on this work.

📜 For more examples of procedural macros, check out the r3bl_rs_utils_macro > repo. This is part of the r3bl_rs_utils crate.

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