So, a while back Julie had an excellent post on symbolism, and the impact it can have on your manuscript. Symbols and motifs are an excellent way to deepen your manuscript, to enrich it in order to enhance the reading experience. Another great way to do so, in my opinion, is intertextuality.
Intertextuality, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term – like Microsoft Word, apparently, judging by the squiggly red underline I’m getting – is very basically the referencing of one text within another. None of us write in vacuums– it’s not just us and our laptop, or us and our moleskine journals. We either consciously or subconsciously draw and build upon concepts that have already been handled.
Too many references to past works can spoil things – it can make your work seem clichéd and derivative. But used properly, intertextuality can be an incredibly effective tool to deepen the themes and ideas in your manuscript, or to say something about your characters in a subtle way. It’s subjective to both your personal preference and the style of the work you’re writing, how much of it you use.
Two great examples of using intertextuality to great effect, are John Green’s Paper Towns and Jandy Neson’s The Sky is Everywhere. In The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson references several things to underpin her text – the example that flows throughout the novel is Wuthering Heights, but that’s not the example I want to talk about – the purpose is quite obvious, to draw on a literary tradition of intense romances to strengthen the one in The Sky is Everywhere.
The references I do want to talk about crop up after the protagonist has become disillusioned with Wuthering Heights (since it ends rather tragically). She starts trying to list stories where lovers triumph – Love in the Time of Cholera and Jane Eyre, to be specific. These references tell us a few things about Lennie. For one, she’s clutching at straws with her love life, therefore the listing of literature For another, she’s intelligent, and lastly, she’s an optimist because despite being rather down on her luck she’s still seeking out hope.
In John Green’s Paper Towns, the intertextual references are more frequent and in depth. Green frequently quotes Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. This does a couple of things – as with The Sky is Everywhere it establishes the intelligence of the characters. It also adds a literary edge to the mystery at the heart of the novel. More importantly, references to Song of Myself are used to reinforce Q’s character arc at various points in the novel, and also to emphasis the questions at the heart of the novel — such as whether we can ever completely know an individual other than ourselves.
One way to include intertextuality without negatively affecting the pace, or incorporating it in a clunky way, is to think about what purpose it serves – that is, what you’re trying to highlight. Is it character, theme, or plot? If you can focus your purpose, you should be able to deepen things with more ease.
Another way to be efficient about enhancing your manuscript in this way is understanding your character. Not every character is going to sound authentic referencing Walt Whitman, or Love in the Time of Cholera – some are going to reference Harry Potter, instead, or Shakespeare. Not every character will make these references explicit .
Ultimately, though, the best way to understand how much or little intertextuality you’d like to incorporate is to read widely. How much or little you include is likely to be subjective to you as a writer. So, do you find intertextuality effective? Do you like to use it in your own writing, and if so what are your tips for using it effectively?
Vahini Naidoo is a seventeen-year-old writer, and recent high school graduate who will be attending University at an as yet unknown location next year. Her edgy YA novel THE GNOME IS WATCHING is currently on submission to publishers. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.