A deep dive into diegesis

In a nutshell

  • A diegetic element is anything that can be considered part of the story world.
  • A cinematic element that is not integrated into the story world of the film is considered non-diegetic.
  • The conscious use of diegetic and non-diegetic elements can add extra layers of meaning to your production.

Diegetic and non-diegetic are two terms you may have encountered while exploring the world of narrative filmmaking. But what does the term diegetic actually mean? In this article, we’ll delve into the history of diegetic storytelling and attempt to unravel the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic elements. While the line between the two isn’t always clear, knowing how diegetic and non-diegetic elements work within a cinematic narrative unlocks of wealth of creative possibilities.

Of mimesis and diegesis

Before we dig into the cinematic context, let’s take a look at the origin of diegesis as a concept. Aristotle’s Poetics presents a theory of drama that defines different modes of storytelling and explores how those modes affect the audience. As part of his argument, the famed Classical philosopher compares diegesis to mimesis.

Mimesis is not exactly the opposite of diegesis. It’s simply a different mode of storytelling. Mimesis refers to the imitation of life as presented through direct representation. For Aristotle, this meant drama, and specifically, the tragedies of the Classical period. Diegesis, on the other hand, refers to a story that is told by a narrator. For Aristotle, the exemplary diegetic form was epic poetry, in which a narrator relays a series of events to an audience.

Where film fits in

According to Aristotle’s definitions, as a visual medium, cinema primarily inhabits the mimetic storytelling mode. In this framing, cinema functions as a window into a world that faithfully reflects the real world inhabited by the audience. Actors act out actions and emotions so that the audience can observe them directly. We, as filmmakers, know that film is always an artifice — a construction. But the illusion is effective.

However, while cinema is a primarily mimetic art form, it has some special characteristics that separate it from the drama’s that Aristotle based his theories upon. On the one hand, the stage play format allows the viewer’s eye to wander across the set, noticing different details and focusing on different actors. Cinema, on the other hand, imposes its own form of narration in the form of camerawork and editing. These technologies dictate what the viewer can and can’t look at — what deserves emphasis and attention and what doesn’t.

These creative choices constitute a form of narration specific to film. It is both mimetic in that it imitates life through direct representation and diegetic in that the story is constructed through filmic narration.

Because film is intrinsically different from the dramas Aristotle wrote about, the term diegesis has taken on a different meaning when referring to film as a storytelling medium. The diegesis, in cinema, is the world of the story as presented through camera work, soundtrack and editing. If, in cinema, the camera is the narrator, then it is the camera, ultimately, that determines what we, the audience, see. Its position and field of view dictate what we look at, and therefore, what is given importance in the context of the story.

What is diegesis in cinema?

When we talk about cinema and filmmaking, a diegetic element is anything that can be considered part of the story world. Specifically, it’s the story as it is depicted on screen, rather than the story as it occurs in real time. Thus, we can see a connection to Aristotle’s diegetic, which relates a story from the point of view of a narrator. The film zooms in on specific elements and jumps across time just as an epic poet might in Aristotle’s day. In film, again, the technology of filmmaking serves as a kind of narrator, even as the medium of film gives us a mimetic representation of the world.

Diegetic vs. non-diegetic

Diegetic elements in cinema include things like characters, set pieces, dialog and environmental sounds. The diegesis does not include elements like voice-over narration, title cards or background music. In cinema, these elements are neither mimetic or diegetic — they are non-diegetic.

While the characters on screen will notice and interact with diegetic elements — the music playing from a car stereo, for example — characters will not and cannot acknowledge non-diegetic elements, such as the orchestral score behind a dramatic sequence. In this way, non-diegetic elements are for the audience and the audience alone. They do not exist as part of the story world.

An easy test to determine whether a particular cinematic element is diegetic or non-diegetic is to ask this question: Do any of the characters know this thing exists? A title screen, for instance, is not something a character would ever acknowledge in most movies.

Are you profilmic?

While we’re at it, let’s take a quick look at another related term: profilmic. Both diegetic elements and non-diegetic elements are distinct from the profilmic event. This refers to the actual happenings in front of the camera that make it possible to capture the scene. The profilmic event includes the actors and set as well as the lighting, sound and other filmmaking equipment — everything that goes into crafting the story world of the film. The profilmic event, in other words, is the reality of the film’s production.

Diegesis in practice

When it comes to filmmaking, we usually speak of diegesis in terms of sound design. Sounds that emanate from within the story world are considered diegetic. By contrast, sounds that come from sources outside of the world of the narrative are termed non-diegetic. However, as we discussed, the labels of diegetic and non-diegetic can be applied to almost any element in the story. Let’s take a look at a few examples.


Music can be either diegetic or non-diegetic. To be diegetic, there needs to be an identifiable source from which the music emanates. Thus, diegetic music is also referred to as source music. Both the audience and the characters in the scene can hear diegetic music without breaking the logic of the story.

For an early example, “Dracula” (1931) used source music exclusively out of concern that audiences of the new “talkies” would not accept music without an origin. Later, the Coen Brothers achieved the same feat with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000). All of the music in that film — astonishingly — is fully explained within the story world. Smaller examples include the club scene in “The Matrix” (1990), which features one of the best needle drops of all time as Rob Zombie’s Dragula blasts over the club’s sound system.

Non-diegetic music is much more common. For examples, think of the icon themes written by composers like John Williams. No one in Jurassic Park could hear those swelling strings and majestic timpani, but the effect on the audience is undeniable. This is a memorable example, but in truth, you can look to almost any film to find abundant examples of non-diegetic music. It’s the background music that underlies almost every movie and TV show. It’s so common, in fact, that it we tend to notice its absence more than its presence.

Visual effects and graphics

For the most part, visual effects can be considered diegetic elements to the extent that they represent an event taking place within the story world — an explosion in a Michael Bay movie, for example. Graphics, by contrast, are nearly always non-diegetic. Even when the title text appears within the scene, like in the opening sequence of “Zombieland” (2009), characters don’t seem to notice.

Image courtesy: Sony Pictures Releasing

However, some visual effects are there specifically for the audience. These are less common in live-action narrative filmmaking, but they are a staple in animated genres. Think Wily Coyote seeing stars after the Roadrunner outsmarts him again or a series of Zzzs floating above a sleeping character’s head.

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) takes this trope into the live-action realm. In the opening scene of the film, we see birds circling around Roger’s head after a refrigerator falls on top of him. However, the film immediately subverts expectations when we hear a director call “Cut,” irate that Roger used birds instead of stars. Suddenly, this non-diegetic element — the birds — becomes a diegetic prop acknowledged by multiple characters within the story world.

The insert shot

Technically, an insert shot is just a close-up meant to emphasize a certain character, object or action happening within the world of the story. As such, insert shots are usually diegetic. However, sometimes, an insert shot can be non-diegetic if it shows something that is not explicitly part of the world of the story. This often takes the form of a cutaway gag — a technique used frequently in the animated series “Family Guy.”


Voice-over narration adds another layer of complexity to the diegetic vs. non-diegetic distinction. Most often, the narrator can be considered a non-diegetic element. The characters within the story are not aware of the narrator, and they do not interact with or respond to what the narrator says.

This seems straightforward, but there are many examples where it isn’t so clear — even without dipping into the avant-garde. For example, what if the characters are narrating events from their past, as in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986)? On one level, Ferris’ narration is non-diegetic — it lives outside of the main story. However, Ferris himself is still part of the fictional story world as presented to the audience. In this way, voice-overs can sit in a middle space between diegetic and non-diegetic.

For another example, consider Grandpa in “The Princess Bride” (1987). Though Grandpa’s narration is non-diegetic to the world of Buttercup and her beloved Westley, it is diegetic to the world of the film. The scenes between Grandpa and his grandson serve as a framing device, lending an extra layer of meaning to “The Princess Bride” as a whole.

Diegetic breakdown

As you can see, sometimes, the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic elements isn’t always so clear. Sometimes music that starts off as diegetic can become non-diegetic with the next cut. This happens at the end of “Interview with the Vampire” (1994), when the vampire Lestat uses a radio to turn on the credits music.

The reverse happens in “Drive” (2011), when the Driver moves from inside his apartment to the hallway. At first, before the Driver leaves his apartment, the music we hear is clearly non-diegetic. Its main function is to set the tone of the scene for the benefit of the audience. However, once he enters the hallway outside and encounters Irene, the non-diegetic background music suddenly switches to muffled diegetic music from behind Irene’s door. This creates a subtle continuity between the two characters and their inner worlds.

Things get even more complicated when characters acknowledge a non-diegetic element, this is a form of breaking the fourth wall. The fourth wall refers to the invisible wall between the diegetic world of the character and the real world inhabited by the audience. When a character breaks the fourth wall, it reminds the audience that the character’s world is only a constructed illusion. It breaks the audience’s sense of immersion — which is usually a bad thing. However, the technique can be used in comedy quite effectively. For example, in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” (1979), a side character, in the middle of being crucified, breaks the fourth wall to let the audience know that the film’s soundtrack can be purchased in the foyer.

What does all of this mean for filmmakers?

While the line between mimetic, diegetic and non-diegetic is a bit fuzzy sometimes, these concepts are worth thinking about. The conscious use of diegetic and non-diegetic elements can add extra layers of meaning to your production. You can use the interplay between diegetic and non-diegetic to either draw your audience deeper into the narrative or playfully subvert expectations and catch the audience off-guard. In either case, thoughtful consideration of what is and isn’t part of your story world will lead to more powerful and engaging narratives overall.

Nicole LaJeunesse
Nicole LaJeunesse
Nicole LaJeunesse is a professional writer and a curious person who loves to unpack stories on anything from music, to movies, to gaming and beyond.

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