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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

According to Gerald Prince in A Dictionary of Narratology, diegesis is

  1. the (fictional) world in which the situations and events narrated occur; and
  2. 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 in contrast to mimesis

Diegesis (Greek διήγησις) and mimesis (Greek μίμησις) 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 (c.373BCE), the ancient Greek philosopher Plato examines the 'style' of 'poetry' (the term includes comedy, tragedy, epic and lyric poetry):

"You are aware, I suppose, that all mythology and poetry is a narration of events, either past, present, or to come? / Certainly, he replied. / And narration may be either simple narration, or imitation, or a union of the two? / [...] / And this assimilation of himself to another, either by the use of voice or gesture, is the imitation of the person whose character he assumes? / Of course. / Then in this case the narrative of the poet may be said to proceed by way of imitation? / Very true. / Or, if the poet everywhere appears and never conceals himself, then again the imitation is dropped, and his poetry becomes simple narration."(Plato, Republic, Book III.)

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 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 his or herself.

In his Poetics, the ancient Greek philosopher 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' (section I); "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" (section III).

Though they conceive of mimesis in quite different ways, its relation with diegesis is identical in Plato's and Aristotle's formulations; one represents, the other reports; one embodies, the other narrates; one transforms, the other indicates; one knows only a continuous present, the other looks back on a past.

What diegesis is

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.

Diegesis in literature

For narratologists, all parts of narratives—characters, narrators, existents, actors—are characterized in terms of diegesis. For definitions of diegesis, one should consult Aristotle's Poetics; Gerard Genette's Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (Cornell University Press, 1980); or (for a readable introduction) H. Porter Abbott's The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge University Press 2002). In literature, discussions of diegesis tend to concern discourse/sjuzet (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.

Diegesis in film

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. When we come to a modern consideration of the cinema, it may appear that the medium is a straight-forward example of mimetic storytelling--but it is not. 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 time sometimes) 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).

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.

Film sound and music

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 (commonly but erroneously called the "sound track") is "non-diegetic" sound. Some examples:

  • Jacques Tati's film Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot's Holiday) systematically builds much of its humor through the systematic confusion and shifting placement of "diegetic" and "non-diegetic" sound-image relationships, showing that these positions depend on the audience's perception of the mimetic space of the film.
  • In the Lost episode "…In Translation", Damien Rice's song "Delicate" plays over a scene of the characters on the beach, before slowing down and cutting out. It is then revealed that the song was playing on a character's Discman that has just run out of batteries.
  • In the 1959 film, School for Scoundrels, Alastair Sim's character, Mr. S. Potter, requests that the orchestra, unseen by the viewer, attenuate its music.
  • In Sunset Boulevard when we enter the mansion eerie organ music is playing, however, this is just the butler Max playing the organ.
  • In The Truman Show, a sequence shows the characters at night, when most of them are sleeping. Soft, soothing music plays, as is common in such scenes, but we assume that it does not exist in the fictional world of the film. However, when the camera cuts to the control room of Truman's artificial world, we see that the mood music is being played by Philip Glass standing at a bank of keyboards. This abrupt shift from apparently non-diegetic to diegetic is a kind of cinematic joke.
  • The same joke is used in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka where the hero's theme is heard in a non-diegetic context and then the camera pans back to show a group of musicians following him, playing the music diegetically, after their presence is pointed out by another character. The hero goes on to describe the band as his theme music, also parodying the idea of character themes in the movies that the film itself parodies.
  • In other cases, a shift from diegetic to extra-diegetic context is less ostensible. In Kill Bill Volume 1, Daryl Hannah's character Elle Driver whistles the "Twisted Nerve" tune as she is walking down the hospital corridor to kill the bride. But as she enters a changing room, the music becomes background with additional instrumentation. In Volume 2, the reverse occurs -- as Uma Thurman's character "The Bride" exits the wedding chapel, the sound of a flute playing appears entirely extra-diagetic, then shifts to diegesis as she appears to be hearing the music in her head, and finally becomes entirely diegetic as she realizes she can actually hear the flute in the world of the film -- it's being played by Bill, sitting outside the chapel.
  • A similar instance (but reversed) is in the Scrubs episode "My Mentor" - J.D. is listening to Leroy's "Good Time" diegetically on his mp3 player. However, it seems to shift to more ambient, although not non-diegetic sound as nurses change bedsheets in time with the music and the janitor sweeps the floor in time to the music followed by a patient and Dr Kelso lip-synching part of the chorus respectively.
  • In the film Blowup, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, all the music heard in the film is diegetic - either heard from a live pop group, record player or car radio.
  • Director Luis Buñuel disliked non-diegetic music, and tried to avoid it in his films. The films of his French era have absolutely no score, some (Belle de Jour, Diary of a Chambermaid) contain absolutely no music whatsoever. Belle de Jour does, however, feature (potentially) non-diegetic sound effects, believed by some to be clues as to whether or not the current scene is a dream.
  • The film The Blair Witch Project was presented in the style of a documentary of real-life events, which would thus contain no non-diegetic music. To counter this, producers released a tie-in "soundtrack", fashioned to resemble a mixtape, containing tracks from various industrial and goth rock musicians. Keeping with the film's mockumentary theme, the soundtrack's liner notes state that the original mixtape was found in the abandoned car of one of the missing teens who appear in the film. Only one song (besides an eerie score in the closing credits) is heard within the film itself, playing briefly over a car stereo in the background.
  • "The Sound of Drums", an episode of the BBC series Doctor Who, features a scene in which the Master concludes a threatening monologue by exclaiming "Here come the drums!", at which point the Rogue Traders single '"Voodoo Child" begins playing over a PA system, beginning with the line "Here come the drums!/Here come the drums!". As the scene progresses, several quick shots show the character Lucy Saxon quietly dancing along to the song. The Master later flips a switch to turn off the music, as the soundtrack segues into a non-diegetic orchestral piece. In the same episode, it is established that the Master continually hears a drumming rhythm in his head, and this same rhythm is transferred to those under his control. This rhythm is based upon the underlying rhythm of the Doctor Who Theme. The following episode, Last of the Time Lords, features the diegetic use of another song, "I Can't Decide" by the Scissor Sisters, as the Master sings along to a recording of the song while taunting the Doctor.
  • In the James Bond film Octopussy, there is a bit of diegesis that also "breaks the fourth wall". British agent Vijay, disguised as a snake charmer, signals his affiliation to Bond and MI6 by playing the "James Bond Theme" on a recorder while Bond is disembarking from a boat in the harbor near the Taj Mahal, as if Bond would know that he has a theme song. Bond (Roger Moore) comments, "Catchy tune!"
  • Death Note has had references to the opening and ending videos, especially when Misa's cell phone ringtone is the ending theme song.
  • The film A Clockwork Orange has several occurrences of diegesis. Sometimes the music is apparently only heard by the audience, other times the same music track is definitely heard by the characters. One example is the electronic version of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement. The audience hears it when Alex visits a record store, but he gives no indication that he can hear it. Later, while undergoing psychological reprogramming, the same track plays over footage of Nazi Germany, and Alex comments on it. Some other segments of the Ninth are audible to Alex at various times. One odd bit of music is a pseudo-Top-40 song, "I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper", which Alex's father extinguishes by switching the radio off. The track used in the film is a different portion of the song than appears in the soundtrack album version.
  • The film Eyes Wide Shut has an occurrence of diegesis. Classical music can be heard in the apartment of Dr. William "Bill" Harford and Alice Harford as they prepare for a Christmas party held by Victor Ziegler. The audience realizes the music is diegetic when Bill stops it by switching off a cd player.
  • The film Miller's Crossing features an example of diegetic music becoming non-diegetic. In one scene, the character Leo is listening to the song Danny Boy on a phonograph, when assassins come to kill him. His house is lit on fire, and he flees through the window, the music still playing. It continues as he kills off the assassins.
  • In the 2007 film Atonement the score is to a great extent made up of piano scoring combined with typewriter ticking. Often, characters are shown typing on a typewriter in rhythm with the music or playing a few notes on a piano and then stop, with the music stopping at the same time creating an interesting effect. Perhaps the most moving example of the crossover from nondiegetic to diegetic sound occurs in the evacuation of Dunkirk scene, when a long shot reveals the horrors of the beach. An instrumental score plays during this shot; when the camera pans over a choir of soldiers singingly morosely, the song they are singing harmonizes with the score.
  • Musicals are often a combination of diegesis and non-diegesis. For example, even when the characters are "aware" that they are singing (see below), there may be an off-screen orchestra accompanying them. The Wizard of Oz plays with this concept at one point. After the Witch's spell in the poppy field is broken, the off-screen "Optimistic Voices" begin their "You're out of the woods..." number. The Scarecrow looks around and moves in rhythm to the song, acknowledging the off-screen music. Likewise, when the Scarecrow sings If I Only Had a Brain (originally meant to be both sung and danced before the dance section was edited out), and when the Tin Man sings and dances If I Only Had a Heart, Dorothy congratulates them on their performance.
  • All of Kevin Smith's films are said to play with the concept of diegesis. The best example of it is in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back where characters will actually make comments about their audience and then turn to the camera. This concept was brought to attention in Roger Ebert's review of the film. The New Jersey Series has several examples where characters from Kevin Smith's films meet or refer to characters or events from his other films.

Diegesis in music-theatre

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 externally 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.

The "Once More, With Feeling" episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer toys with the concept of non-diegetic versus diegetic music when the characters find themselves compelled to burst into song in the style of a musical. The audience's first critical assumption--that this is a "musical episode" where the Buffy cast is presumably unaware that they are singing--is overturned when it becomes clear that the characters are all too aware of their musical interludes and that determining the supernatural causes for the singing will be the focus of the episode's story. The audience is then forced to abandon one form of suspension of disbelief (i.e. that musical numbers will go unacknowledged by the characters in a musical) in favor of another (that the characters are aware of how unnatural spontaneous singing is in the context of the "real world").

Diegesis in role-playing games

In role-playing games diegesis includes all the "in-game" parts of the story, both those that are and aren't actually played out. However, rules or system elements that are used to resolve what does and doesn't happen in the imagined situation are typically "non-diegetic." For example, the number of hit points that a character has may determine whether or not a character dies in a fight, but are not themselves part of the narrative situation. The term "meta-concept" is also used for some non-diegetic elements.

Discussion of non-diegetic information by role-playing characters comprises much of the humor in the comic strip The Order of the Stick. For example, characters frequently discuss their saving throws, hit points, and experience points. Cartoon tropes are also skewered, such as when one character notices that another "has the X's in the eyes" - in other words, is dead.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Diegesis" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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