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Stories Within Stories (Within Stories)

Photo by Flickr userTanya Hart [1]
Photo by Flickr userTanya Hart

Allow me to set the scene.

A young couple is on a road-trip through New England. It’s just coming on to dusk as they approach a small town in rural Maine. In need of gas and food, they turn on to the main road. Their car engine splutters and dies. It’s only then that they notice the street is empty; not a single person is outside.

As they climb out of their car, they hear a door slam, and then the sound of fading laughter.

The couple look at each other, and one says, “This place feels like a Stephen King novel.”

What do you think is going to happen next? More importantly, what kind of feeling does that last sentence give you about the story to come.

That, my friends, is intertextuality.


Intertextuality is a term that was first used in 1966 by literary critic Julia Kristeva to describe the literary device wherein one text refers to another, either subtly or overtly. It refers to one book referencing another — either another book, a movie, a fairy tale, or even a well-known social “text”, like Kanye’s “I’mma let you finish” moment.

We, as humans, have been telling each other stories for thousands of years, each one carefully constructed over the bones of past stories. As they say, no story is an island. We approach every story we consume — whether it be a book, movie, TV show, computer game, comic book, or whatever else — with a knowledge of other stories. Often, it’s that knowledge, that recognition of how stories go, that makes reading so enjoyable.

No, really, intertextu-what-ity?

Generally, you know intertextuality when you see it. In fact, not only do you know it, it gives you a frisson of excitement; a feeling that you’re part of the “in group” that gets the inside joke.

There are so many examples of intertextuality in modern pop culture, it’s hard to know where to start. Watch any episode of The Simpsons and you’ll be sure to find one. For example:

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But sometimes they’re a lot more subtle.

A few years ago, I saw a recommendation for Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series, with the note that it would appeal to readers who love Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Naturally, I picked up the first of Jacka’s books at my earliest convenience.

Early in the book — on page 3 or 4, from memory — as the first-person protagonist was explaining  all the reasons that wizards in London keep a low profile, he adds: “I’ve heard of a guy in Chicago who advertises in the phone book under “Wizard”,though that’s probably an urban legend.”

Now, if you’ve read The Dresden Files, you probably got the same gleeful sense of in-joke-ness as I did when I read that sentence the first time. Not only did the intertextual reference make me feel clever and on the same wavelength as the author, it made me immediately predisposed to love the book.

Which brings me to the whole point of this essay.

Conscious intertextuality

Whether you intend on it or not, you will use intertextuality in your stories. It’s just something that happens. We read, we live in the world, we engage with stories every day of our lives. Subconsciously, those experiences shape our writing and make their way on to the page — often so subtly that we barely notice them until they’re pointed out.

But what if we were conscious of the intertextuality we were using?

Because, let me tell you, if you have your protagonist meet an important secondary character named Pandora, readers are going to immediately make an intertextual connection between your character and the character from Greek myth. So, why not use that to your advantage?

And, yes, I know that we already do. If you’re anything like me, you spend more time working out the perfect name for your characters than you did your children. (Did I just say that out loud?)

But it’s not just names. It’s settings and descriptions and people and references to other works of fiction or authors or events. The moment one of your characters stands up and says: “I have a dream,” you are using intertextuality to summon a particular mood and theme — either by reinforcing the mood of the original text, or destabilising our understanding of one or both texts.

Now, before you get all excited about adding as many intertextual references as you can into your work, be warned: you can go overboard.

Weaponised intertextuality

As I’ve said, intertextuality is fun and adds depth to a story. But sometimes it’s possible to go too far. The prime example of this is in the boom of recent Superhero movies.

Back in the good old days of, oh, I don’t know, ten years ago, Superhero movies were relatively rare. There were a couple of X-Men movies, and some Spider-Man movies, and… I don’t honestly remember any others. If you ever had the fortune to see one of those movies in the cinema with a dyed-in-the-wool comic geek (or you are one yourself), you may have been subjected to regular, gushy whispers of indecipherable phrases like: “It’s Phoenix!” Or “Iceman!” Or “Squeee! I know him!”

Intertextuality at its finest. In-jokes for people “in the know”, that faded into the background for those of us who were there to enjoy a stand-alone movie.

But then things got a bit insane.

These days, there are more Superhero movies than I can count, and each of them is so packed to the gills with intertextuality that it’s hard to spot the story through the cameos.

Nerdwriter1 has a great YouTube video about weaponised intertextuality, which you can watch here [2]. My favourite quote from his video is this one:

Those moments are like unicorn blood; they’ll keep your story alive but with only half a soul.

Are you consciously aware of the intertextuality you use in your stories? Have you had any greet squee moments at seeing/reading intertextual references?

About Jo Eberhardt [3]

Jo Eberhardt is a writer of speculative fiction, mother to two adorable boys, and lover of words and stories. She lives in rural Queensland, Australia, and spends her non-writing time worrying that the neighbor's cows will one day succeed in sneaking into her yard and eating everything in her veggie garden.