This guide to diegetic vs. non diegetic elements will help you understand how your perspective compares to what the characters in your favorite movies, shows, and games experience.
While the two diegesis classifications are often used to describe sounds, they can apply to visual elements as well.
Together, the different diegetic and non-diegetic elements can make a world of difference in how creative, immersive, and layered the final cut is.
To see the full picture, we’ve considered diegesis from etymological, filmmaking, and even UI design angles. Let’s take a closer look!
Table of Contents
Both “diegetic” and “non-diegetic” trace back to the Greek word “diegesis.”
At its core, diegesis is the narration, but some people would better describe it as the narration space-time continuum.
In a sense, it’s the story world and every aspect included in it.
While diegesis originally referred to oral storytelling in ancient Greece, it’s still relevant in today’s filmmaking industry.
The concept now encompasses a wide range of audio and visual aspects that we can classify as diegetic, non-diegetic, or even trans-diegetic.
Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Meaning
If an element supposedly exists within the world around the characters, it’s diegetic.
On the other hand, a non-diegetic element is something that was added just for the audience’s benefit—it theoretically doesn’t exist in the story world.
Diegetic Element vs. Non-Diegetic Elements
The terms can seem complicated, but once you check out the examples, the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic elements becomes stark.
Suppose a character in a movie or show sits down to read a book. The text, in this case, is clearly diegetic.
The title card displayed at the beginning of the movie? That’s non-diegetic.
On-screen text that introduces the location and time of a scene is also a non-diegetic element.
Keep in mind that non-diegetic elements can take up the full screen, too.
One popular example is the shot of a bandit firing his gun directly at the audience at the end of “The Great Train Robbery.”
A more modern example is when Luc Besson intercutted a scene in “Lucy” with shots of tigers chasing a gazelle from a source external to the main diegesis.
This cinematography technique of adding visual non-diegetic inserts can help derive the narrative further.
That said, when people bring up diegetic and non-diegetic elements, they’re most likely talking about sound rather than visual aspects.
The Difference Between Non-Diegetic and Diegetic Sound
The same diegesis principles that apply to visual elements apply to sound.
Any sound that the characters (not the actors per se) can hear is a diegetic one.
With on-screen diegetic sounds, the viewers can see the source in the scene. It could be anything from someone speaking to a boombox playing.
However, it’s also possible for audio to be diegetic even if the sound source is off-screen.
You just need a reasonable belief that the source is there in the story world and within earshot of the characters.
Take, for instance, a door creaking from another room. That’s still a diegetic sound, even though the audience can’t see the door.
Diegetic Sound Examples
Here are the top types of diegetic audio used in film sound design:
- Dialogue (internal or external)
- Ambient sounds (birds chirping, raindrops, engines humming, etc.)
If you can’t reasonably assume that a sound is audible to the characters in the story world, it’s non-diegetic.
Directors can use these audio inserts to add a dramatic flair to the screen narrative, create suspense, or manipulate emotions. Non-diegetic audio can also add an exaggerated, comical effect.
Non-Diegetic Sound Examples
The musical score is the most popular non-diegetic sound, and it can be powerful enough to be etched in our minds for ages. The sinister, unsettling notes in Jaws are a great example!
However, there are other non-diegetic sounds used in filmmaking, including:
- Music overlay
- Sound effects (dings, record scratches, whooshes, etc.)
Sounds in Film and TV That Could Go Either Way
So, audio elements that are audible to characters are diegetic, and everything else is non-diegetic. The issue here is that some sounds aren’t that easy to categorize.
You might even be wondering why “music” is listed as both a diegetic and non-diegetic example.
Music isn’t the only confusing sound, either. Narration and sound effects can also shift labels based on context.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these tricky examples.
Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Narration
The traditional form of narration is non-diegetic, where the narrator doesn’t play a role in the story.
However, there are times when the narrator is a character in the movie, and the line is blurred, like in “Forrest Gump.”
Gump is telling his story to others within the film, so we can consider the narration diegetic.
Note that internal monologue is also an internal diegetic sound.
Sure, not all characters in the scene can hear it. Yet, it does exist in the film world, even if only in one character’s mind.
Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Music
Any music that emanates from the story world surrounding the characters is diegetic.
Seeing characters dancing or jiving to the tune is a dead giveaway that the music is, in fact, diegetic. They might even be the ones performing or singing.
Even if the characters don’t directly acknowledge the sound, it could be considered diegetic music. Think car radio humming in the background.
Either way, this is called source music. On the other side of the equation, you have the non-diegetic overlay music.
Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” in “Catch Me If You Can” falls under the second category since there’s no in-world source.
As far as Frank Abagnale (or any other character, for that matter) is concerned, Sinatra’s song just isn’t there. So, we can safely say that this overlay music is non-diegetic.
Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic Sound Effects
Audio effects like whooshes and dings are non-diegetic, but directors can also add realistic, diegetic sound effects, like explosion sounds and gunshots.
Again, it’s all about whether or not there’s an in-world source.
Common Misconception: Diegetic Sounds Are Always Recorded On-Set
Just because characters in the story world can hear the diegetic sound doesn’t mean that it’s recorded on-set or that the actors can hear it, too.
Remember the explosion sounds we just talked about?
Well, the explosion scene is often filmed without the audio effects. The sound is added in post-production edits, but it’s still diegetic.
Similarly, filmmakers can add audio elements later for ambient sounds, in-world music, and even dialogue!
There are a few techniques that help sound designers do just that. Let’s check a couple of them out!
Automated Dialogue Replacement
Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR) is a common technique for noisy action scenes.
In ADR, the actors record their lines in a studio after shooting the scene, and then the audio is synced over the video. This way, the dialogue remains audible despite all the ambient noise.
Foley Sound Effects
Many of the on-set/production sound effects (glass breaking, footsteps, zippers, fabric swooshing, etc.) end up being replaced with in-studio versions, synced using tools like Adobe Audition.
Well, sometimes, the effects are underwhelming, either because of the ambient noises or because the fake props, like rubber swords, don’t sound like the real thing.
Plus, Foley SFX comes in handy for dubbing into different languages. The separate SFX track can be layered over the translated dialogue easily to keep the essential elements of the story world intact.
Regardless of the reason, Foley artists can get creative with their techniques and props.
You’d be surprised to know that some of the bones you hear breaking in movies can be nothing more than celery or pasta snapping in half!
Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Elements in One: Trans-Diegetic Sounds
While watching the opening of “Dog Day Afternoon,” you might be under the impression that Elton John’s song is a form of overlay music (non-diegetic).
Yet, a few minutes later, the sound fades into the background, and you realize that it’s actually coming from a car radio (diegetic).
Similarly, you might remember Sheriff Bart in “Blazing Saddles” trotting on his horse to the tunes of “April in Paris” across the desert.
Naturally, you assume this is non-diegetic because there’s no reasonable way there’s an in-world source behind the music.
Then, this belief is shattered as Bart trots over to find Count Basie and his orchestra in the middle of the desert, which should make the sound technically diegetic!
So, what’s going on here?
These are both examples of trans-diegetic sounds. They began as one form and shifted into the other, subverting expectations and adding a meta quality to the content.
Of course, it’s also possible for trans-diegetic effects to go the other way around, changing from diegetic to non-diegetic.
This could be as simple as music from an in-world source turning into a timelapse montage.
Diegesis Beyond Film and TV
Diegetic and non-diegetic sounds and visual elements aren’t limited to filmmaking—you can also find them in the world of game and virtual reality UI design.
Diegetic vs. Non-Diegetic UI Elements
Menus, ammo counters, and health bars on some games’ UI are helpful but non-diegetic elements. They’re here only for the player’s sake and don’t exist within the original diegesis.
That said, many UI designers try to rationalize the non-diegetic elements and shift them towards the diegetic category to help the suspension of disbelief.
For instance, the HUD is integrated as a part of Samuis’ helmet in Metroid Prime Hunters.
The ammo-count display on Halo 3’s guns is also a good example of swapping traditional non-diegetic elements with more immersive design choices. This way, both the player and the game character can see the counter!
Note that UI designers can also resort to other categories, like meta UI or spatial UI.
Spatial UI, like a player name tag, is somewhere between diegetic and non-diegetic.
It’s presented as if it’s part of the world (as opposed to an overlay element), but there’s no reason to assume that the game character sees it.
Meanwhile, meta UI links the screen space and the game space.
One commonly used example is displaying blood splatter on the screen’s sides when the character gets hit.
What is diegetic sound called?
Sometimes, diegetic audio is referred to as “actual sound.” In this case, the non-diegetic counterpart might be called “complementary sound.”
What is extra-diegetic vs. non-diegetic sound?
In the field of sound design, both “extra-diegetic” and “nondiegetic” can be used interchangeably to describe any element outside the spatio-temporal world of the film.
When is voiceover diegetic?
For the most part, any voiceover that is not a part of the narrative is considered non-diegetic.
Is a soundtrack diegetic?
The film soundtrack is usually non-diegetic. However, some filmmakers opt for trans-diegetic tracks that switch forms along the way to become part of the primary diegesis.
Is the background sound diegetic?
Background music is often non-diegetic, but ambient sounds in the background can be diegetic.
Should I use diegetic or non-diegetic sounds?
In most cases, you’ll need both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds to bring the story world to life.
Some directors even need to go beyond the two categories for creative reasons, especially for unconventional narrations and internal dialogues.
What are the three types of sound in film?
You can break down the audio in a film into dialogue, music, and sound effects.
It’s also possible to classify sounds into two acousmatic zones (off-screen diegetic and non-diegetic) and one visualized zone (on-screen diegetic), according to Michel Chion’s proposition.