Diagetic Style vs. Mimetic Style: Show Don’t Tell

The following is an excerpt from my industry paper on Writing for Marketing (2022). I think it’s a nice little exploration into the concept of “show don’t tell”, along with a great example for screenwriters.

The excerpt:

…this is where I introduce you to diegetic style and mimetic style. They are opposed in most ways, and neither is necessarily better than the other. I can certainly tell you that one of them is more popular than its counterpart — at least right now in 2022.

Most entertainment you consume right now is mimetic. In simplest terms, it acts out the story. Think about a mime (mimetic) and how they silently play out a situation for the viewer to interpret. 

The major shift to mimetic storytelling in literature comes from the film industry, because audiences have gotten very used to being engrossed in the visceral experiences of a story. 

The sentiment is: Don’t tell me what’s going on, show me!

On the other hand we have diegetic writing. This is telling a story. Most any story that begins “once upon a time…” is diegetic, for example. Diegetic generally has a narrator. It can be very painful and boring, especially for modern audiences who are accustomed to emotional, sensory experiences. 

I can cite a perfect example that you can experience for yourself — as long as you like science fiction movies. There are two film versions of Frank Herbert’s Dune: the 1984 original and the 2021 reboot. If nothing else, go watch how each of these movies begin. I don’t want to spoil it, but the difference will practically snap your neck. If you watch them both in their entirety, you will gain a very real appreciation for the differences between mimetic and diegetic storytelling. 

And bonus content:

It couldn’t hurt to expand on the two versions of Dune in this blog post. I want to first point out that the 1984 version of the film was absolutely painful to watch. Maybe it’s because I’ve been spoiled by modern storytelling techniques or something, but I went through that whole movie wondering what McDonald’s the director ended up working in. 

Anyway, the trouble begins right at the start of the movie when a weird, semi-opaque, floating woman’s head appears over a starfield. She then begins reading a long, long exposition about the history of the universe. I mean really long. It drones on for so long that her head actually starts fading in and out of visibility as the actress tries to will herself out of the movie. 

That’s the setup, but the next problem occurs throughout the entire movie. They frequently use voiceover lines for the characters’ thoughts. And not just the protagonist. Not just the main characters. Anyone whose thoughts “needed” to be directly read as a line off the script gets a voiceover. They really didn’t need to be. Better writing, stage direction, and acting can usually overcome any need for broadcasting thoughts like “Hmmmm. I don’t trust him”. Oi.

Then there was pacing. The movie didn’t have any, and consequently it felt like it would never, ever end. I’ll just leave it at that. 

To balance this out with a compliment, the almost 50-year-old special effects look better than most of the CGI, cartoonish garbage that passes for sci-fi effects these days. Remember when visuals were impressive because you knew someone actually had to build that set, that spaceship, or that life-sized T-Rex? Yeah. Now someone just does it in Blender in like 12 minutes. 

I’m being pretty harsh, so let me do a little red-teaming of my own opinion. I think the numerous problems with the old Dune stem from a lack of experience translating novels to screenplays. If anything, they were probably trying to stay too true to the books. There’s exposition in the first chapter of the book, so let’s have a weird floating head do that. You can read the characters’ thoughts in the books, so let’s plaster them right out there in the audio track. Bam, boom.  

So when someone complains to you about how their favorite novel was made into a movie and “they screwed it up by deviating from the book”, tell them to go watch Dune 1984 and count their blessings. 

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