23 Nov

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.


7 Responses to “Intertextuality”

  1. Lindsay November 23, 2010 at 4:47 AM #

    I try to use it only a little because of how much it has ruined other books for me. It brings in preconcived emotions. If you hated the piece that the characters seem to love, it can make the characters unlikeable.

    Lately I’ve been trying to read some of the classics and this kind of writing has ruined Little Women for me. Last time that I read the book I was quite a lot younger and it must have flown over my head. Now I cringe every time that they talk about the Pilgrim’s Progress. One, because I really disliked that book when I read it in college. Two, because the two stories don’t really seem to fit. Their trials of sacrifice would be more touching if they weren’t always comparing themselves to characters in other books.

    It can help explain some of the character’s background but only to a point, after that it just gets annoying.

  2. authorguy November 23, 2010 at 7:16 AM #

    I do something like this in my own stories, but not always books. In St. Martin’s Moon, Joseph Marquand frequently refers to movies, quoting them or thinking about them in an appropriate context, from Star Wars to The Incredible Shrinking Man, mostly for ‘flavor’ or humorous effect. Another character occasionally references Shakespeare, in her case as a bit of character explication using few words. In my novel Unbinding the Stone, it is not the work referenced but the reference itself that matters. Tarkas constantly refers to the various Songs of his people in the beginning, but as the story progresses he uses them less and less for guidance and more for other purposes, such as magic spells. I use this as much for humorous effect as for character development, half the time his traveling companion replies, “I know the Song, Tarkas.”

    Marc Vun Kannon

  3. Gretchen November 23, 2010 at 10:14 AM #

    I like the concept of intertextuality if only because it offers another link to reality. It gives characters a sense of reality because they have access to something that is beyond the page, and beyond the imagination of the author. I know that I use it to some extent but not overtly, just references to what they are reading or read often and it will probably come up again. Like one of my characters hides important information in his copy of Anna Karenina, because his wife left him.
    I do see how it can bog down a book, and the first one that jumps to mind in New Moon. I was going to blow chunks if I heard the words Romeo and Juliet one more time.

  4. Rowenna November 23, 2010 at 10:26 AM #

    I like playing with references–sometimes I have to remind myself that my favorites aren’t necessarily familiar to other readers! It takes away the impact when you have to take time to explain what the heck you’re referencing–I learned that when I tried to include a not-well-known French poem in a story. Ummm…by the time I translated half of it, it had definitely lost impact.

    Referencing films and music from the 40s in my current project worked much, much better. 🙂

  5. Caitlin November 23, 2010 at 12:11 PM #

    Awesome post, Vee! Paper Towns, ftw!

    I’ve not really done anything like this in my own writing (except for the very brief Lewis Carroll reference in Letters to Oliver) because most of my stories predate literary references a modern audience would recognize! Whoops… 🙂

  6. Julie Eshbaugh November 23, 2010 at 9:43 PM #

    I loved this post, Vee! I never really knew much about intertextuality before reading this. Your examples are fantastic. I’ve never read THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE, but it sounds awesome. 🙂

  7. Cassie November 24, 2010 at 12:49 AM #

    I’m not sure if this is what you’re getting at, but I love “paralleling”. I don’t know if it has a name or if it’s an actual literary technique, though. Basically, if characters A and B are forced to read Romeo and Juliet in class in something I’m writing, then I put it there to foreshadow their love affair and eventual downfall. I’ve seen it done in a bunch of TV shows before and I love making the connection and comparing the character to the person with which they’re being “paralleled”. It definitely adds something more the story for me – whether I’m watching it on TV or reading it in a book, I love stumbling across things like that!

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