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What Is Intertextuality? A How-To Guide With Examples

What Is Intertextuality? A How-To Guide With Examples

Finding similarities between stories is a rather satisfying activity. Intertextuality just adds that extra layer of meaning and a dose of excitement when we can see similar patterns in two different stories.  

But what exactly is intertextuality? You know how we are influenced by certain books we read or films and series we watch or songs we listen to? You know how that influence seeps into our writing, advertently or inadvertently? That’s intertextuality. This seemingly cunning literary trick requires understanding in a little more depth so that you can use it as a deliberate tool to your creative advantage. 

Ever watched The Lion King and thought ‘Hmmm…Simba’s story is somewhat like Hamlet’s’? Both Hamlet’s and Simba’s fathers are killed by their brothers, Claudius and Scar, respectively. And both Hamlet and Simba seek revenge on their uncles and take back their kingdoms, after being visited by the ‘ghosts’ of their fathers reminding them of their duties.  

If you missed that, I’ll take it you didn’t read or watch Hamlet, and you wouldn’t be the only one. You see, we can draw parallels and observe similarities only by comparison. If we’re not aware of the older story being recalled, we might not see the intertextuality at play. This applies to writing too. Even when it’s our own story, there’s a very good chance our writing has intertextual links to some other work we might have read or watched, even if we’re unaware of it. 

In this article, we’ll define intertextuality, go through the different types and forms of intertextuality, look at some examples of intertextuality, and explore how intertextuality can be used in your writing. 

What Is Intertextuality?

Culturally, works of art, literature, and music all derive from one another, and this makes for a thriving web of creativity. These works we weave all share a few, if not many, common threads. When two or more bodies of work parallel one another or reflect themes and/or plotlines from one another, it’s called intertextuality. Often it can be inadvertent, but it can just as easily be a deliberate device. When done well, intertextuality becomes a great literary tool in the writer’s kit. 

Types Of intertextuality 

Latent intertextuality is when intertextuality is used inadvertently. When it is used consciously, it is referred to as deliberate intertextuality.  

Latent Intertextuality 

Most writings invariably have some element of intertextuality in them, as being influenced by some of the things we consume is inevitable. When I showed the prologue of my love story to my professor when I was on a creative writing course, he observed that it had a ‘Rudyard Kipling feel about it’. It was one of the best compliments I’d ever received. 

In my story, I animated the sun as an onlooker and referred to it as ‘him’ to show the reader the sun’s glimpse into the life of my main character. This is a pretty common way to refer to the sun in all Indian languages; in fact, we gender a lot of inanimate objects in our native tongues and it seeps into our English too.  

Rudyard Kipling’s works were heavily influenced by the times he lived in – British India – and his own works were a product of that era. So, he’d have been naturally influenced by the native land and language. So, what was common between my story and Kipling’s works was the native language influence that brought with it a “come, come see this land” kind of vibe, as well as the use of description. I wasn’t aware of this similarity until my professor saw it and mentioned it. Besides, like I mentioned before, latent intertextuality can be easily missed if you’re not aware of the text your own work parallels. 

Deliberate Intertextuality 

Choosing to use intertextuality as a deliberate literary device is a skill every writer would benefit from. One of my favourite novels of all time is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This work has perhaps some of the most exemplary usage of deliberate intertextuality. Throughout the book, there are various references to real events of the time this story is set in.  

An obvious example of deliberate intertextuality is when Max, the Jewish man hiding in the Hubermanns’ basement paints over a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, to write his own story for the protagonist Liesel. This is not only the character’s attempt at rewriting the reality from his perspective, but also the author’s own attempt at having his voice heard by the reader, albeit through a character. This is a clever way for the writer to let his presence be felt by his reader, when the story allows it.  

Different Forms Of Intertextuality 

Many writers choose to explicitly base their contemporary works on a classic work and this is an obvious way to incorporate intertextuality. Writers can do this through translation, form, parody, allegory, retelling, fan fiction and prequels.  

Translation And Form 

No two languages are the same and they often come with cultural tints of their own. So, when we translate a work from one language to another, even with most of the story being the same, the two simply read different. Another way this can happen is through changing the form or genre of the original work. For instance, the 20th century Irish author James Joyce’s novel Ulysses makes use of both these kinds of intertextuality. It’s an English rendition of the ancient poet Homer’s Greek poem Odysseus.  

Retellings 

Retelling is a skill by which a good storyteller can spin a popular (but possibly outdated) story into a compelling tale of the current times. This tool is one of the ways in which Disney tries to stay relevant with the audience of today. Take, for instance, the movie Brave, whose protagonist is unlike any of the other Disney princesses – wild and messy; or Frozen, whose princess Elsa is the first to be coronated and to rule as queen, without having to marry a prince; or Maleficent, wherein princess Aurora’s curse is broken by ‘true love’s kiss’ from her adoptive mother rather than a prince. These fairytales take root from their tried-and-tested predecessors but spring forth with characters and plot-twists that are more suited to the modern times we live in. 

Parodies

When you take a plot, writer’s style or even an entire genre and exaggerate it for comical effect, it’s called a parody. The Shrek movies do exactly this with the entire genre of fairytales. They’ve turned the ‘happily ever after’ theme on its head. They are literally all about ‘ugly ever after’, with Fiona choosing to remain an ogress with Shrek, despite being given a second chance to be a ‘beautiful’ princess. Littered with several adult puns (“Although she (Snow White) lives with seven other men, she’s not easy”), exaggerations (Sleeping Beauty falling with a thud every other minute, even in an action sequence), and very literal use of deep songs (Live and let die at the Frog King’s funeral), these movies tickle the funny bones of adults and children alike.  

Fan Fiction 

Fan fiction is a genre more prevalent on the Internet than anywhere else. Works of fan fiction are directly related to rather popular texts, but they are written by a reader and not the original author of the popular text.  

As ardent lovers of stories, I’d say we’re all familiar with the pain of a story coming to an end, especially if it’s a series of novels. Readers of Twilight by Stephanie Meyer felt this pain when the four-book series came to an end.  

One of them took to writing a sequel to the series on the web – a raunchy piece depicting what the protagonists Bella Swan and Edward Cullen might be up to in their bedroom. The writer, under the penname ‘Snowqueens Icedragon’, then decided to change the protagonists’ names, rewrite the plot, and went on to self-publish it. What happened next was unprecedented – it went on to become a phenomenally bestselling trilogy of erotic fiction in its own right! We know this trilogy as the 50 Shades franchise, and its author as EL James.  

Prequels 

When a backstory to the main story is provided as a standalone, it’s called a prequel, just as a progressive instalment to the main story would be called a sequel. Similar to fan fiction, prequels have quite the flair to weave intertextuality seamlessly into a story.  

One such elegantly handled prequel is the Disney movie Cruella, which serves as a precursor to the 1996 film 101 Dalmatians. In many ways, it attempts to humanise an evil villain who’s better known for her love of skinning puppies to make ‘fashionable’ coats.  

Uses Of Intertextuality And Intertextuality Examples 

Deliberate intertextuality serves a great many purposes for writers. Here are a few of them: 

To Change The Form Of A Text 

When in fifth grade, I had to study an abridged version of Ulysses by the 20th century Irish author James Joyce. What I didn’t know then was that my copy was a watered-down-meant-for-kids version of an epic novel, which was in itself a translation of the epic poem Odyssey by ancient Greek poet Homer.  

Ulysses is a great example of deliberate intertextuality in literature, where translation and change in form create a whole new piece of work, despite being directly derived from another known text. Joyce has structured his novel similarly to the original poem. However, the duration of his storyline only runs for the course of a day following the hero Leopold Bloom’s realistic life in early 20th century Ireland, whereas the ancient poem narrates the hero Odysseus’ decade-long mythical journey back home from Troy to Ithaca.  

To Redo Or Renew A Character 

The very allegorical name and character – Cruella – renders itself beautifully to intertextuality. It calls into question how much notoriety classifies as ‘cruel’ because this puppy-skinning villain from 101 Dalmatians is surprisingly fond of dogs in the prequel and only plays the part of a supposed dalmatian-murderer, whilst still using her friends to get what she wants, all the while being mean to them. The backstory of Cruella really makes us wonder what pushed her to be the heartless being she is in 101 Dalmatians, and even gets us to sympathise with her throughout the movie.  

To Keep A Story Alive  

The similarities between Bella Swan of Twilight and Anastasia Steele of 50 Shades of Grey are uncanny. They’re both young, awkward, lip-biting brunettes, who’re sexually and romantically inexperienced. They both fall for handsome, young, rich men with dark secrets – Edward Cullen of Twilight is a vampire, and Christian Grey of 50 Shades is a sexual sadist. The women are ‘prey’, the experienced men their ‘predators’.  

Yet, despite such heavily similar characters and themes, EL James’ 50 Shades manages to stand out as a whole new category from Twilight. While Twilight can be read as young adult and teenage fiction, 50 Shades has a solid place in the erotica hall of fame. Still, 50 Shades keeps the love story of Twilight alive in spirit. 

To Rethink Endings 

The movie Shrek, and the whole franchise, parodies the very concept of a fairytale. This example of deliberate intertextuality shows how an entire collection of stories, even canon, can be turned upside down to set a new precedent for what can be considered a ‘happy ending’. Shrek is an ogre, not a charming prince. He’s sent on an expedition to save Princess Fiona by Lord Farquaad, rather than Farquaad venturing on the quest himself. And even though marrying Shrek means she’d remain a ‘hideous’ ogress for the rest of her life, Fiona chooses this fate for love. 

To Rewrite A Narrative  

Retelling popular narratives is a great way to connect with newer audiences. You have no idea how happy watching the Disney movie Brave made me. The story is a subversion of several Disney fairytales. Merida, the protagonist, is nothing like other Disney princesses whom modern girls or women don’t have much in common with. She’s wild, outdoorsy, hates dressing up, and has no interest in princes.  

This intertextuality example is one where the very narrative of a well-known genre – fairytale – changes dramatically. In fairytales, external situations lead the princesses to their dangerous fates. In Brave, Merida sets in motion a series of problems, all by herself, and (unlike other princesses waiting for their charming princes to rescue them) manages to fix them all by herself too. It’s a very empowering – and modern – notion that girls and women, and people in general, are the leaders of their own lives and that they can choose to rescue themselves.  

How To Use Intertextuality In Your Writing 

If your readers can recognise and understand intertextuality, then their reading experience becomes that much richer. It adds multiple layers of meaning, context, and depth, making it a culturally complex and enriching experience. 

Here are some ways in which you can use intertextuality in your own writing

  • If you’ve been struggling to get a new idea, why not try rewriting a really long novel, perhaps an epic, as flash fiction? Imagine a 100-word long Lord Of The Rings. How about converting a satirical essay into a limerick? Think Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in an anapestic trimeter. 
  • If you have a particularly upright and moral character in your story, why not explore your character’s darker side in a whole other book? This could work particularly well in the crime and thriller genre. But it could work just as well in a love story too if your protagonist has a prospective partner but that person has a flaw which wasn’t revealed initially.  
  • Here’s how you could try your hand at fan fiction. We know how Death from The Book Thief collected not only souls but also stories. What if Death had also collected Heinrich Schliemann’s soul? He was the archeologist that introduced the swastika (then a Hindu symbol of hope and prosperity), to Germany. What if Death collected his story? How would he narrate it, connecting it to the events that occur in the timeline of The Book Thief? You could trace the de-evolution of the symbol from something interesting and hopeful into dark and terrorising. 
  • Let’s say you’re writing a romance. We all know how most romantic fiction follow the fall-in-love-fight-make-up-get-married routine. How would you change this? What does a happy ending look like for your lovers? How about a parody of errors? What if their march to the wedding is full of what’s normally considered nightmares? This could come in right after the climax, to serve as an anticlimax before the ending. It could actually punctuate the understanding your lovers have come to after the climax, right before you let them have their ‘happy’ ending. You could use this to show how ‘happy’ doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s no pain or problems. 
  • Dark, brooding and stern men abound, in literature, whose hearts can only be opened up by bubbly girls or cheerful women. What if the man in your story is the bubbly, cheerful and emotive one, and the girl is the one who needs opening up? How would that go in your story? It’s certainly worth a try flipping this rather cliché of a character sketch of men.  

Intertextuality: Top Tip  

The key factors that decide what kind of deliberate intertextuality would suit your writing are how you’d like to connect with your reader and whether or not the reference to another work you make is relatable for your target reader. If your reader can’t understand, or even notice, your references, then intertextuality is a moot point, even if your own story is credible and complete in and of itself. This is especially the case in parodies. 

The thing with intertextuality is that whether or not you’re aware of it, in all probability your writing already includes it. But if you can make it a deliberate tool in your craft, it can bring a whole new level of creativity to your writing and a complete other experience to your reader’s understanding. 


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