You might not be familiar with these two terms, which describe different methods of storytelling. Mimesis is fictional representation. Diegesis is presented description, usually in the form of narration, within a constructed environment, rather than a purely external representation. We can very basically define mimesis as “showing”, and diegesis as “telling”.
But don’t get this mixed up with fiction and non-fiction, that’s different. Both diegesis and mimesis are fictional, just in different ways. It’s a bit tricky to grasp these concepts at the theoretical level, let’s give you some different examples.
In art and literature
Any traditional human art is mimetic; poetry, novels, painting, theatre, sculpture. When the Greeks invented these terms, they were trying to distinguish between plays portrayed by actors in character, and ones where a narrator figure would appear within the story, in some form, as an extra layer of narrative between the story action and the audience, to add an additional perspective.
In movies and video games
Diegesis gets a bit complex in the advanced modern storytelling of movies and gaming. Let’s not confuse you, as it’s not directly relevant to the point of this article, but to begin to understand the complexities of things like voiceover narration within fiction films, click here, if you want to go down that rabbithole!
In journalism and documentaries
Diegesis becomes a greyer area in journalism and documentary film-making. If I see a journalist interview a politician in real-time, unedited, that’s not diegesis, that’s non-fiction, it’s real. But a correspondent, reporting from somewhere, speaking to camera… they are giving us their descriptive view based on information they have assembled. At what point do they stop becoming a reporter of fact and start becoming a diegetic narrator? To confuse things even further, where do we draw the line when a documentary film-maker like Louis Theroux steps from behind the camera and becomes part of the story itself? Here’s some further reading on the philosophical considerations behind narrative journalism.
So what about marketing?
If we create a brand, we create both the world of that brand, and a narrative for it. It exists in the real world, but it’s a construct. We represent that brand in different ways, for example with advertising. This is inherently mimetic, we are showing what our brand is about, but there are likely to be some fictional elements to what we’re showing (otherwise the plain reality might be a bit boring or time-consuming). But the role of a narrator, telling us something, can add considerable power to the delivery. As an example, this HSBC advert featuring Richard Ayoade as the narrator:
This would be considered “metadiegetic” in that the narrator is telling us a story from inside the main story. He is in the story world, the other characters can see him and they react to his presence, but it’s as though they don’t hear or react what he is saying, only what he is doing. The words of the narration are just for us.
Many businesspeople are becoming used to the idea that they have to present themselves via video, as it becomes the dominant marketing medium. Which means we need to start giving a lot more thought to how we present ourselves as diegetic narrators within the mimesis of our brand world.
This is what the best Youtubers do very well, they become narrators within the constructed world of their video and add a layer of rhetorical power and interest that makes their content far more engaging.
Check out this video about playing guitar from Paul Davids, one of my favourite Youtubers. (Sadly YT won’t let me embed it). I don’t even play guitar but I like music and his video construction is superb. Watch what happens from 2.50 onwards. He appears as a separate narrator character, interacting with the main character of himself with the guitar; speaking with himself, but also to us. It’s a brilliant device which makes the storytelling within this explanatory video much more engaging.
My point is this: If you want to be persuasive in your brand storytelling, it’s important to harness the power of these rhetorical devices and know how to employ them. It will elevate your brand storytelling far above that of your competition, who are either just presenting facts or relying on the mimetics of standard advertising. Understanding diegesis is the key to creating a role for you as the narrator of your brand and being truly connective with your audience.