Diegesis

Diegesis [dahy-uh-jee-sis] is a style of storytelling in fiction which presents an interior view of a world and is: that world itself experienced by the characters in situations and events of the narrative; telling, recounting, as opposed to showing, enacting. In diegesis the narrator tells the story. The narrator presents to the audience or the implied readers the actions, and perhaps thoughts, of the characters.

Diegesis (‘narration’) and ‘mimesis’ (‘imitation’) have been contrasted since Plato’s and Aristotle’s times. Mimesis shows rather than tells, by means of action that is enacted. Diegesis, however, is the telling of the story by a narrator. The narrator may speak as a particular character or may be the invisible narrator or even the all-knowing narrator who speaks from above in the form of commenting on the action or the characters.

In ‘Book III’ of his ‘Republic,’ Plato examines the ‘style’ of ‘poetry’ (the term includes comedy, tragedy, epic and lyric poetry): All types narrate events, he argues, but by differing means. He distinguishes between narration or report (diegesis) and imitation or representation (mimesis). Tragedy and comedy, he goes on to explain, are wholly imitative types; the dithyramb (an ancient Greek hymn sung and danced in honor of Dionysus; the clearest example of poetry in which the poet is the only speaker) is wholly narrative; and their combination is found in epic poetry. When reporting or narrating, ‘the poet is speaking in his own person; he never leads us to suppose that he is any one else’; when imitating, the poet produces an ‘assimilation of himself to another, either by the use of voice or gesture.’ In dramatic texts, the poet never speaks directly; in narrative texts, the poet speaks as him or herself. In ‘Poetics,’ Aristotle argues that kinds of ‘poetry’ (the term includes drama, flute music, and lyre music for Aristotle) may be differentiated in three ways: according to their medium, according to their objects, and according to their mode or ‘manner’); ‘For the medium being the same, and the objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration — in which case he can either take another personality as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged — or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us.’

Diegesis may concern elements, such as characters, events and things within the main or primary narrative. However, the author may include elements which are not intended for the primary narrative, such as stories within stories; characters and events that may be referred to elsewhere or in historical contexts and that are therefore outside the main story and are thus presented in an extradiegetic situation. For narratologists, all parts of narratives — characters, narrators, existents, actors — are characterized in terms of diegesis. In literature, discussions of diegesis tend to concern discourse/sjužet (in Russian Formalism) (vs. story/fabula). Diegesis is multi-levelled in narrative fiction. Genette distinguishes between three ‘diegetic levels.’ The extradiegetic level (the level of the narrative’s telling) is, according to Prince, ‘external to (not part of) any diegesis.’ One might think of this as what we commonly understand to be the narrator’s level, the level at which exists a narrator who is not part of the story he tells. The diegetic level is understood as the level of the characters, their thoughts and actions. The metadiegetic level or hypodiegetic level is that part of a diegesis that is embedded in another one and is often understood as a story within a story, as when a diegetic narrator himself/herself tells a story.

The classical distinction between the diegetic mode and the mimetic mode relate to the difference between the ‘epos’ (or epic poetry) and drama. The ‘epos’ relates stories by telling them through narration, while drama enacts stories through direct embodiment (showing). In terms of classical poetics, the cinema is an epic form that utilizes dramatic elements; this is determined by the technologies of the camera and editing. Even in a spatially and temporally continuous scene (mimicking the theatrical situation, as it were), the camera chooses where to look for us. In a similar way, editing causes us to jump from one place (and/or time) to another, whether it be somewhere else in the room, or across town. This jump is a form of narration; it is as if a narrator whispers to us: ‘meanwhile, on the other side of the forest.’ It is for this reason that the ‘story-world’ in cinema is referred to as ‘diegetic’; elements that belong to the film’s narrative world are diegetic elements. This is why, in the cinema, we may refer to the film’s diegetic world.

‘Diegetic,’ in the cinema, typically refers to the internal world created by the story that the characters themselves experience and encounter: the narrative ‘space’ that includes all the parts of the story, both those that are and those that are not actually shown on the screen (such as events that have led up to the present action; people who are being talked about; or events that are presumed to have happened elsewhere or at a different time). Thus, elements of a film can be ‘diegetic’ or ‘non-diegetic.’ These terms are most commonly used in reference to sound in a film, but can apply to other elements. For example, an insert shot that depicts something that is neither taking place in the world of the film, nor is seen, imagined, or thought by a character, is a non-diegetic insert. Titles, subtitles, and voice-over narration (with some exceptions) are also non-diegetic.

Sound in films is termed diegetic if it is part of the narrative sphere of the film. For instance, if a character in the film is playing a piano, or turns on a CD player, the resulting sound is diegetic. If, on the other hand, music plays in the background but cannot be heard by the film’s characters, it is termed non-diegetic or, more accurately, extra-diegetic. The score of a film is non-diegetic sound. Coyle (2004) also points out that songs are commonly used in various film sequences to serve different purposes. They can be used to link scenes in the story where a character progresses through various stages towards a final goal. An example of this is in Rocky: Bill Conti’s ‘Gonna Fly Now’ plays non-diegetically as Rocky makes his way through his training regimen finishing on the top steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his hands famously raised in the air. Non-diegetic use of music in film is generally the norm; however, the line between diegetic and non-diegetic music can be blurred.

As with film, the term ‘diegetic’ refers to the function of the music within a work’s theatrical narrative, with particular relevance to the role of song. Within the typical format of opera/operetta, characters are not ‘aware’ that they are singing. This is a non-diegetic use of song. If however the song is presented as a musical occurrence within the plot, then the number may be described as ‘diegetic.’ For example, in ‘The Sound of Music,’ the song ‘Do-Re-Mi’ is diegetic, since the characters are aware they are singing. The character Maria is using the song to teach the children how to sing. It exists within the narrative sphere of the characters. In contrast, the song ‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?’ is non-diegetic, since the musical material exists external to the narrative.

In both the 1936 and the 1951 film versions of ‘Show Boat,’ as well as in the original stage version, the song ‘Bill’ is diegetic. The character Julie LaVerne sings it during a rehearsal in a nightclub. A solo piano (played onscreen) accompanies her, and the film’s offscreen orchestra (presumably not heard by the characters) sneaks in for the second verse of the song. Julie’s other song in the film, ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ is also diegetic. In the 1936 film, it is supposed to be an old folk song known only to blacks; in the 1951 film it is merely a song which Julie knows; however, she and the captain’s daughter Magnolia are fully aware that Julie is singing. When Julie, Queenie, and the black chorus sing the second chorus of the song in the 1936 version, they are presumably unaware of any orchestral accompaniment, but in the 1951 film, when Magnolia sings and dances this same chorus, she does so to the accompaniment of two deckhands on the boat playing a banjo and a harmonica, respectively. Two other songs in the 1936 ‘Show Boat’ are also diegetic, ‘Goodbye My Lady Love’ (sung by the comic dancers Ellie and Frank), and ‘After the Ball,’ sung by Magnolia. Both are interpolated into the film, and both are performed in the same nightclub in which Julie sings Bill.

One Comment to “Diegesis”

  1. I didn’t know about diegesis and mimesis before, thanks for such an informative post

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