Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Levels

When discussing ‘diegetic levels’ of a story, imagine a ground floor. Level zero. All events and characters featured on this level are part of the story. Level zero is the normal, basic narrative level in a text. A story may not have any other levels, but it will at least have a ground floor. This happened, that happened, the end.

As for the other levels, think of ‘meta’ as above and ‘hypo’ as below the ground floor (level zero).

It can get even more complicated than that — in which case a story will be called ‘experimental’. Technically a story might have a meta-metadiegetic narrator, or a hypo-hypodiegetic narrator beyond the hypodiegetic narrator etc.

Writers don’t think in terms of diegetic levels. This is a set of terms scholars of literature use. It’s up to the person studying texts to decide which level is level zero. In some stories this is pretty obvious; in the experiemental texts, not so much. The cycle of the Arabian Nights are famous for their narration which extends in both meta and hypo directions, in which level zero (primary) narratives are embellished with a vast variety of myths and also with historic and daily events. When discussing these texts, scholars can use these diegetic levels to help convey how the narratives (fabula) relate to each other.

When writers talk about all this, they tend to talk about ‘framing‘. A frame is any structure which puts boundaries on a story about to be told.

Metadiegetic Narration

Metadiegetic narration refers to a secondary narrative wrapped around the primary narrative. The secondary narrative can be a story told by a character within the main story or it can take the form of a dream, nightmare, hallucination, imaginary or other fantasy element.

This kind of narration is typical of idyllic fiction. e.g. Winnie The Pooh. In the Pooh stories, there is a metafictive father telling these stories to a metafictive son over and over again. This wraps the level zero (ground floor) story, set in The Hundred Acre Wood. (In general ‘metafiction’ is fiction which draws attention to the fact that it’s fiction.)

A contemporary example: George and Harold are the metadiegetic narrators (and illustrators) of the Dogman adventures by Dav Pilkey.

The story within a story was common in certain fairytales. “The Wee Bunnock” (from Scotland, of course) is a variation on The Gingerbread Man and opens like this:

[LEVEL ONE STORY] “Grannie, grannie, come tell us the story o’ the wee bunnock.”
“Hout, bairns, ye’ve heard it a hunner times afore. I needna tell it owre again.”
“Ah, but, grannie, it’s sic a fine ane. Ye maun tell’t. Just ance.”
“Weel, weel, bairns, if ye’ll a’ promise to be guid, I’ll tell ye’t again.
But I’ll tell you a bonny tale about a guid aitmeal bunnock.

[LEVEL ZERO STORY] There lived an auld man and an auld wife at the side o’ a burn…

Many of the Grimm fairytales don’t open with a metadiegetic storyteller, but they do close with one, sometimes obliquely. That’s because these tales come from an oral tradition, and the ‘oralness’ of the storyteller hasn’t been one hundred percent omitted in the earliest writing-down of it:

  • Now my cat’s run home, for my tale is done.
  • But I don’t know how the two little demons were able to free themselves.
  • And whoever doesn’t believe me must give me a gold coin.

Stories with embedded stories sometimes serve to give the audience a helping hand in figuring out what the story’s about. The narrator is figuratively holding the audience’s hand. “I’m telling you a story, and I’ll also tell you how to make sense of it.” Embedded stories from the oral tradition tend to work like this because the oral tradition is good for conveying moral messages, which it prioritises over character conflict, scene-setting and so on.

But sometimes, the interpretation of an embedded story is left up to the audience. A writer may offer up an embedded story to serve as a contrast for moral values, or something like that.

Hypodiegetic Narration

Hypodiegetic narration is Story Within A Story narration, also known as Embedded Narrative or Show Within a Show at TV Tropes. Any character who produces a further narrative within a narrative is a hypodiegetic narrator.

The hypodiegetic level is the storey aboe the groundfloor, whereas the hypodiegetic level is first floor underground. Stories with these extra layers to them will feature an “extradiegetic” narrator who appears on a different level of the story.

Hypo narratives (sometimes called hypo fabula, to use the term of the Russian Formalists) are sometimes used to create an effect of ‘mise en abyme‘, a favourite feature of postmodernist storytellers. (Think of two mirrors facing each other in a dressing room.) Experimental stories can hypothetically extend forever in each direction: a story within a story within a story within….

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Examples of Hypodiegetic Narration

I’m sticking to obvious examples here, avoiding the complicated and experimental.

  • Anne Shirley is a hypodiegetic narrator when she tells Marilla about her visit to the concert.
  • “Come, Sam, tell us a story,” said I, as Harry and I crept to his knees, in the glow of the bright evening firelight; while Aunt Lois was busily rattling the tea-things, and grandmamma, at the other end of the fireplace, was quietly setting the heel of a blue-mixed yarn stocking. —The Ghost in the Mill, Harriet Beeecher Stowe, first sentence.
  • The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights — A tells a story about B who tells a story about C and so on.
  • The Book Of The Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison is a modern post-apocalyptic novel with a Canterbury Tales structure to it. A main character meets others on her journey and they either tell her their stories or she steals their diaries.
  • In The Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade’s stories keep the Sultan from killing her. In the end he marries her because she’s such a good storyteller.
  • In a crime novel or courtroom drama, a surprise witness may have a tale that solves the case.
  • A child in a story asks an adult to tell them a story. The adult telling the story is the hypodiegetic narrator.
  • Mary Alice is the hypodiegetic narrator in Desperate Housewives, although when she is shown in the story (in flashbacks before she had died), she is a diegetic narrator.
  • In Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman, a father goes to the shop. When he comes home he tells the children a tall tale. The father is the hypodiegetic narrator.
  • In The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse, Beatrix Potter keeps the Battle scene off the page by having one mouse character tell another. (It would be heinous to show a cat killing a canary.)