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Diegesis is a style of fiction storytelling that presents an interior view of a world in which:
- details about the world itself and the experiences of its characters are revealed explicitly through narrative
- the story is told or recounted, as opposed to shown or enacted.
In diegesis the narrator tells the story. The narrator presents the actions (and sometimes thoughts) of the characters to the readers or audience.
In contrast to mimesis
Diegesis (Greek διήγησις "narration") and mimesis (Greek μίμησις "imitation") have been contrasted since Plato's and Aristotle's times. Mimesis shows rather than tells, by means of action that is enacted. Diegesis 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 "outside" in the form of commenting on the action or the characters.
In Book III of his Republic (c. 373 BC), 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 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 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).
In filmmaking, the term is used to name the story depicted on screen—as opposed to the story in real life time that the screen narrative is about. 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. 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/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 being told. The diegetic level or intradiegetic 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.
Film sound and music
Sound in films is termed diegetic (termed source music by professionals in the radio, film and television industry) 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. The cantina band sequence in the original Star Wars is an example of diegetic music in film, with the band playing instruments and swaying to the beat, as patrons are heard reacting to the second piece the band plays. 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 extra-diegetic. 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 toward 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 raised in the air.
This distinction may be toyed with in order to break the fourth wall. In the Archer episode "Sea Tunt Part 1", Cheryl begins to hear music that would otherwise seem to be non-diegetic. She even comments: "Just ignore it; it's non-diegetic."
In musical theater
In musical theater, as in film, the term "diegesis" refers to the context of a musical number in a work's theatrical narrative. In typical operas or operettas, musical numbers are non-diegetic; characters are not aware that they are singing. In contrast, when a song occurs literally in the plot, the number is considered diegetic. Diegetic numbers are often present in backstage musicals.
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. In contrast, the song "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?" is non-diegetic, since the musical material is 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. 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.
In the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the episode entitled "Once More, with Feeling" toys with the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic musical numbers. In this episode, the Buffy characters find themselves compelled to burst into song in the style of a musical. The audience is led to assume that this is a "musical episode", in which the characters are unaware that they are singing. It becomes clear that the characters are all too aware of their musical interludes, and that determining the supernatural causes of the singing is the focus of the episode's story.
In video games
In video games, "diegesis" comprises the narrative game world, its characters, objects and actions which can be classified as "intra-diegetic". Status icons, menu bars and other UI which are not part of the game world itself can be considered as "extra-diagetic"; a game character does not know about them even though for the player they may present crucial information. In this respect, these elements can be considered part of the narration provided by the game itself, although this will usually be a separate and distinct voice from that of the Story narrator, if there is one.
- Gerald Prince, A Dictionary of Narratology, 2003, University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 0-8032-8776-3
- An etext of Plato's Republic is available from Project Gutenberg. The most relevant section is the following: "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.)
- Plato, Republic, Book III.
- See also Pfister (1977, 2-3) and Elam: "classical narrative is always oriented towards an explicit there and then, towards an imaginary "elsewhere" set in the past and which has to be evoked for the reader through predication and description. Dramatic worlds, on the other hand, are presented to the spectator as "hypothetically actual" constructs, since they are "seen" in progress "here and now" without narratorial mediation. [...] This is not merely a technical distinction but constitutes, rather, one of the cardinal principles of a poetics of the drama as opposed to one of narrative fiction. The distinction is, indeed, implicit in Aristotle's differentiation of representational modes, namely diegesis (narrative description) versus mimesis (direct imitation)" (1980, 110-111).
- Elam (1980, 110-111).
- https://archive.org/details/GregoryKurczynskiOnOutsightRadioHours, Interview with a filmmaker on the diegetic role of music in film
- Aristotle. 1974. "Poetics". Trans. S.H. Butcher. In Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski. Ed. Bernard F. Dukore. Florence, KY: Heinle & Heinle. ISBN 0-03-091152-4. p. 31-55.
- Bunia, Remigius. 2010. "Diegesis and Representation: Beyond the Fictional World, on the Margins of Story and Narrative," Poetics Today 31.4, 679–720. doi:10.1215/03335372-2010-010.
- Elam, Keir. 1980. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. New Accents Ser. London and New York: Methuen. ISBN 0-416-72060-9.
- Pfister, Manfred. 1977. The Theory and Analysis of Drama. Trans. John Halliday. European Studies in English Literature Ser. Cambridige: Cambridge University Press, 1988. ISBN 0-521-42383-X.
- Plato. c. 373 BC. Republic. Retrieved from Project Gutenberg on 2 September 2007.
- Coyle, R. (2004). Pop goes the music track. Metro Magazine, 140, 94-95.
- An Introduction to Film Analysis: Technique and Meaning in Narrative Film: Michael Ryan, Melissa Lenos: 9780826430021: Amazon.com: Books. The Continuum International Publishing Group, n.d. Web. 3 May 2013
- The dictionary definition of diegesis at Wiktionary