Narration and Storytelling: Diegetic Levels

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 you can get a meta-metadiegetic narrator, or a hypo-hypodiegetic narrator etc.

Metadiegetic Narration

Pertains to a secondary narrative embedded within 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 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:

  • 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.

Hypodiegetic Narration

This is Story Within A Story narration, also known as Embedded Narrative. Any character who produces a further narrative within a narrative is a hypodiegetic narrator.

Think of it as the inverse of metadiegetic. In both metadiegetic and hypo diegetic narration feature an extradiegetic narrator who appears on a different level of the story.

Hypo narratives are sometimes used to create an effect of ‘mise en abyme‘, a favourite feature of postmodernist narratives. (Think of two mirrors facing each other in a dressing room.)

Dummies for Dummies For Dummies

Examples of Hypodiegetic Narration

  • 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. (It’s up to the person studying these texts to decide which level is level zero.)
  • 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 hypo-diegetic narrator.

A narrator who exists — in full or in part — on a different story level from the other characters is more commonly known as a storyteller. For more on how to write fiction making use of a storyteller narrator, see this post.

 

Stream of Consciousness vs. Interior Monologue

Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.
Two Men Contemplating The Moon by Caspar David Friedrich makes me think one of them is telling the other a solioquy, or some other old-fashioned narrative device.

Interior Monologue Narrative Technique

  • Interior monologue is a stylised way of thinking out loud. (Technically: thinking ‘on the page’.)
  • Some people call it ‘internal’ monologue. This is the same thing.
  • Unlike stream-of-consciousness, an interior monologue can be integrated into a third-person narrative. The viewpoint character’s thoughts are woven into description, using the author’s own language.
  • This is the essential difference between interior monologue and straight narrative:
  • Straight Narrative = the narrator talking (You know ‘the narrator’ — that made-up character who sounds like the author — but please don’t mistake authors for narrators – not all authors are crazy axe-wielding, mentally unstable murderers, unlike many of their narrators.)
  • Interior Monologue = a character talking/thinking, using words specific to that character, making assumptions, mistaken judgements, conclusions RIGHT FOR THAT CHARACTER.
  • If interior monologue is done well, you won’t even notice it’s happening.

Stream of Consciousness Narrative Technique

  • Like interior monologue, stream-of-consciousness is another stylised way of thinking out loud.
  • It is the 19th and early 20th century version of what has become ‘free indirect style/speech’. (A style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech.)
  • Stream-of-consciousness tends to read more like a pure soliloquy. (A famous soliloquy is Shakespeare’s To be or not to be.)
  • There’s a lot of interior monologue in stream-of-consciousness but the difference is, there’s no punctuation to mark it out as such.
  • The terms ‘stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘interior monologue’ are used interchangeably by some — but stream-of-consciousness refers more often to a first person narrative which mimics the jumble of thoughts, emotions and memories passing through a character’s mind. (That said, interior monologue is not necessarily written in first person.)
  • Stream-of-consciousness tends to be less ordered than interior monologue. That’s because consciousness has no beginning and no end — thoughts flit quite randomly from one thing to another.
  • Stream of consciousness is a regular feature of The Psychological Novel.

Rare Interview With Author Janet Frame

This is a radio interview, transcribed and published in Landfall 178 (Volume forty-five, June 1991) between Janet Frame and Elizabeth Alley.

janet frame

Elizabeth Alley: In the autobiography you seem more willing than in the fiction to open some of the doors about yourself and your life – to correct some of the myths that surround you.

Janet Frame: I wanted to write my story, and you’re right of course, it is possible to correct some things which have been taken as fact and are not fact. My fiction is genuinely fiction. And I do invent things. Even in The Lagoon which has many childhood stories, the children are invented and the episodes are invented but they are mixed up so much with part of my early childhood. But they’re not quite, they’re not the true, stories. To the Is-Land was the first time I’d written the true story. For instance, Faces in the Water was autobiographical in the sense that everything happened, but the central character was invented. But with the autobiography it was the desire really to make myself a first person. For many years I was a third person – as children are. ‘They’, ‘she’… and as probably the oppressed minority has become, ‘they’. I mean children are forever ‘they’ until they grow up.

EA: For a long time you really were quite reluctant to discuss anything that had to do with the genesis or meaning of your work.

JF: Well I write, you see. I don’t tell about my life. I just write and that is my telling, but in order to set down a few facts and tell my story, this is my say.

EA: Tell me about your title, ‘To the Is-Land‘. Is this something to do with your feeling about the truth of words? And the way that you always prefer to take the very literal meaning of words?

JF: Yes, and it arose from my meeting with the word ‘Is-Land’, in an early story I was reading, one of those Whitcombes stories, and my refusal to accept that it was Island, that it really wasn’t Is-Land. Of course, looking at it n ow I chose the title ‘To the Is-Land‘ for obvious reasons, because of the obvious double-triple meanings. I assumed that words meant what they said, and everyone about me seemed to assume that they did. It was just a gradual process of learning the depths of words, I suppose.

EA: Words were always revered in your house though, weren’t they? As ‘instruments of magic’ I think you described them.

JF: Certainly, I think so. I was thinking of that knowing I was coming here to be interviewed by you. I was having a cup of tea at that little place next door and I took out the bus timetable to read. And I remembered that everyone at home always had something to read.

EA: When did you first discover you could make words work for you?

JF: Oh I’ve never discovered that… I’m still working at that.

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