I is for Intertextuality

Well that’s a fancy word.

I paid good money to take classes where they talk all about fancy words, but this is one of the few that ever stuck with me past final exams.

Learning about intertextuality was one of those lightbulb moments where I realized there was a word for a concept I’d subconsciously understood, but didn’t know how to explain.

So what exactly is it?

Intertextuality is the relationship between two works. That’s pretty broad. But it can manifest several ways.

First is when the author purposefully inserts the relationship into the work. Quotes are maybe the most direct method. For example, whenever anyone mentions, “Alas, poor Yorick,” from Hamlet, it’s an obvious reference to the mortality speech given by the loopy prince. But it goes beyond ‘referencing’ Hamlet; beyond saying, ‘Hey remember this guy?’ On a deeper level, it allows a writer to bombard readers with the important messages of other works, just by the merest hint within their own. Other techniques include using similar phrasing as a past work, treating themes in a similar way, or using certain items or settings that the reader will associate with the referenced story.

Second is when the author’s subconscious sneaks connections into their writing that they didn’t intend. This happened to me, when bits and pieces of other literary works popped out at me after I read my first draft. These weren’t characters or scenes—I’m not talking about lifting story here. Instead, they were little references to colours or symbols, or a subtle nod to an event from a work that had a definitive impact on me.

Third is the biggest wild card. This is when intertextuality is created by the reader, instead of the author. A reader will automatically bring their own past experiences and knowledge into a new story, and might see a connection which the author had no intention of creating—such a link to a movie the author had never seen. This has a carry-forward effect, which can be good or bad. One that springs to mind for me is that scene in Family Guy, where Stewie (baby with the football-shaped head) recites Elton John’s Rocket Man. Now every time I hear that song, I’ll remember that scene, even though Rocket Man was written well before the show. They’ve become linked, the new not forgotten just because you return to the old.

This makes for a six degrees of separation among every artistic work ever produced. In fact, it might even be less than six degrees (probably every work is two degrees or less from Shakespeare—that jerk is everywhere).

But why am I rambling about this? Because how a reader interprets a work is fundamental to how a story is understood. Whether by the intent of the author, or because of the past experiences of the reader, every story will be connected with countless others. Some on purpose, some by coincidence, some centuries and cultures apart.


For the reader, each connection provides them with a deeper, more powerful understanding of the story. And the story will impact each reader in a different way—will become linked with images, works, and thoughts that the writer is powerless to control. Like releasing a balloon into the sky and not knowing its journey or destination. Could end up landing peacefully in the hands of a small child who needed a ray of hope … or end up choking a bird to death on the edges of a polluted lagoon.

Because the reader’s mind does not always do what the author intends …

And if you read this whole section as interSEXuality instead of interTEXTuality, I really must question where your mind is at.


This is an entry from my bestselling* book, A is for Adverb: An Alphabet for Authors in Agony. To read the entire alphabet, join me weekly for #WriteTip Tuesday. If you’re in a rush, get the whole book free by signing up here, or do this writer a solid and buy the book on Amazon.

*Totally a bestseller for, like, a day on Amazon.ca.

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