diegesis (narrative theory) Diegesis is used with two very different meanings in relation to understanding narrative, narration and story. In film theory diegesis is the story world, the setting of the story and the world of the characters, with the specific understanding that in a narrative film some elements are diegetic, part of the story world and some are non-diegetic. The non-diegetic elements are those that can’t be perceived within the reality of the story, So, the following: the musical score that would not be perceptible to the characters is not part of the diegesis, text on screen, titles, captions, and also shots edited into the film that are not part of the story world. As an example: A character in a scene indicates they are thirsty, and the next shot is of an intensively burning fire: this burning fire is not part of the story world. Sound might also be non-diegetic: a narrator who is not a character in the film explaining or commenting on the story.
In narrative theory, narratology, poetics, aesthetics, diegesis is the concept of a narrator telling the events, stating the action of a story, as opposed to showing them in a dramatic acted out form, which is mimesis. The origin of this division between diegesis and mimesis is established in Plato’s Poetics in relation to Attic drama where some events in the story were acted out, which is mimesis and some events were told by a speaker, which is diegesis. Diegesis is telling. Mimesis is showing. They are two different forms of narration.
Being pragmatic it may not matter that there are two definitions and uses of diegesis as long as it’s clear which one is being used so that the meaning of any discussion is clear. The theoretical problem and the issue for understanding film narrative is that diegesis in film theory looses the concept of mimesis, using diegetic/diegesis instead, and film narrative is actually mimetic: it shows a story in a dramatic form.
If one uses narrative theory to discuss narration in film, then there is a mimetic component of the narration, what is acted out in dialogue and action, what is shown on screen, and then there is how the medium of film is able to narrate this action through filming and editing to make a narrative and tell a story, which can be called for convenience filmic narration, which is specific to narrating story in the medium of film. Using diegesis to indicate filmic narration does not make it clear that film narrative is mimetic, and like drama narration, its acted out and then the medium is a specific component of the narration.
Using mimesis, and why it is needed as a concept, is because what is specific to a particular medium, stage drama, moving image, and written prose is that they narrate stories in very different ways. Stage drama consists of mimesis, acting out, with action and dialogue, while diegesis is someone telling elements of the story directly to the audience. Film has mimesis, the action and dialogue shown on screen and filmic narration, which is practiced as continuity filming, which can be understood as the diegetic component of film narrative but to represent mimesis. So, mimesis should not be lost as a concept and the film theory usage of diegesis, separates out elements that are in act all diegetic: music is diegetic and so are captions and voice over narration: they tell the story. The error has occurred because of the need to explain the workings of the continuity system. How films tell stories, but in this process mimesis is lost.
What films, television novels, plays, comic books, radio dramas, computer games can do is tell stories. Audience’s, readers, players can understand these stories, so there is a sense that they have an intrinsic similarity, they have narrativity, but because each medium is different, its method of narration is different.
In the medium of written storytelling there is speech/dialogue that is mimetic, and all other events in the story are diegetic narration: every written story has a teller, an implied author, a narrator. In a prose story, action can be narrated, described as immediate action, the events in detail as a description of lived experience: I picked up the glass and took a sip of water. This might be thought of as mimetic, because the action can be imagined as an action that can be acted out, but it is still told in writing, it’s not mimetic in the sense of mimesis in drama. Besides immediate action a prose story has summary action, summarising events, it has descriptions of settings and people, and there is commentary: where the author/narrator passes comment on events in the story. Each of these forms of narration is a particular use of diegesis in prose. They do not apply to film and drama, except in the case of speech being presented in prose.
In comparison to the use of mimesis in narrative theory the definition and usage of diegesis in film theory, besides explaining the continuity system, is a consideration of realism in film narrative, with story/story world being the imagined reality of the characters: they can’t hear the music score, or read the captions on the screen. It is useful creatively and in terms of story comprehension to consider what a character knows, what the story world is like, what is being represented, and this is an activity that the audience will undertake. So, having a concepts of diegetic and non-diegetic has a usefulness, but this use in film theory should not be taken to explain how the medium of film narrates action and events to construct a narrative and show a story. Acting is given little attention in film theory, as it is often considered to be pre-filmic element, it is an action that is film and the film in its use of moving images and editing constructs the story: yes, film grammar is the medium and narration, but the medium is only one part of the form. In print there are stories in the form of novels, in the forms of news, in the form of diaries: the medium can be seen as essential, but this is not the form
Considering a last issue regarding the confusion between the two uses of diegesis. The film theory use is almost an inversion of the original concept of mimesis. Film narration shows story action through dramatic narration, it is mimetic, not diegetic. There are some very particular elements of film narration that tell the story rather than show the story: voice over narration, captions, breaking the fourth wall, and this is diegesis, rather than non-diegetic. A potential explanation for this odd reversal occurring is that film theory recognises that film narration shows story action, mimesis, but wants to consider the filming narration, the filming and editing to be a telling of the story, so that film grammar, film continuity is diegetic: this explanation for the changed meaning of diegesis in film theory is not really valid, because in film theory, diegesis does not indicate filmic narration, but the comprehension of the story events based on the viewpoint of the characters in the story: their story world. This is character knowledge and audience knowledge.
Whatever the complications between the definitions it is important to be able to be able to use the original conceptions of mimesis and diegesis as they clarify how stories are told, and how film narrates stories.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019