Do you borrow phrases and concepts from other works in your own? If yes, then you’re using intertextuality, perhaps even without knowing it.

Though it sounds intimidating at first, it’s quite a simple concept really:

Intertextuality denotes the way in which texts (any text, not just literature) gain meaning through their referencing or evocation of other texts.

texts, referencing

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What Is Intertextuality?

When writers borrow from previous texts, their work acquires layers of meaning. In addition, when a text is read in the light of another text, all the assumptions and effects of the other text give a new meaning and influence the way of interpreting the original text.

It serves as a subtheme, and reminds us of the double narratives in allegories.

This term was developed by the poststructuralist Julia Kristeva in the 1960s, and since then it’s been widely accepted by postmodern literary critics and theoreticians.

Her invention was a response to Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory and his claim that signs gain their meaning through structure in a particular text. She opposed his to her own, saying that readers are always influenced by other texts, sifting through their archives, when reading a new one.

In a recent short story I was writing, I included a quote by Turgenev at the beginning, which served as a sum-up of my main premise in the story.

Intertextuality Example:

A famous example of intertextuality in literature is James Joyce’s Ulysses as a retelling of The Odyssey, set in Dublin. Ernest Hemingway used the language of the metaphysical poet John Donne in naming his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Even the Bible is considered an instance of intertextuality, since the New Testament quotes passages from the Old Testament.

Beware of Plagiarism

One thing you need to absolutely remember when evoking a reference to another work is to make it clear it’s a reference. Once intertextuality has gained popularity, there were cases of authors using phrases of other works, without indicating what they are doing. There’s a thin line between using intertextuality as a literary device and plagiarising, even if not intended.

Intertextuality as a Sophisticated Concept

A complex use of intertextuality is considered a sophisticated tool in writing. Rather than referencing phrases from other works, a refined use of intertextuality involves drawing upon an ideology, a concept, or even rhetoric from others.

Thus, you may explore the political ideology in your story by drawing upon the current rhetoric in politics. Alternatively, you may use a text source and explore it further.

Looked at it this way, the popular rewriting of fairy tales in modern contexts can be viewed as a highly cultured use of intertextuality.

To be sure, intertextuality is a powerful writing tool that shouldn’t be overlooked. It opens new possibilities and perspectives for constructing a story.

What other uses of intertextuality can you think of? Have you explored this literary device? Share your thoughts below.

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Freewrite for fifteen minutes and include a reference (a word, phrase, concept, quotation etc.) of another work in your practice. When you’re done, post it in the comments.

As always, be supportive to the others.

Sophie Novak is an ultimate daydreamer and curious soul, who can be found either translating or reading at any time of day.
She originally comes from the sunny heart of the Balkans, Macedonia, and currently lives in the UK. You can follow her blog and connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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