Diegetic vs. Mimetic Writing: Making Sense of the Show-Don’t-Tell Decree

Trying to understand the dynamics of creative writing is like wandering into a briar patch. For a writer who has fallen in love with the craft, if they have not studied these dynamics, they will at some point in time submit a manuscript inevitably to be returned, rejection notice attached, with a potential suggestion to learn how to “show” and not “tell” the story. Depending upon the writer, the level of burning sensation frying the scalp will reach variable levels.

The problem with this particular brand of advice is that it is not altogether wholesome; it is vague and it doesn’t guide a writer toward better writing. What exactly does it mean, to “show” and not “tell” a story?

In technical terms, diegetic writing is the same as “telling” your story. Diegesis is the formative writing style that brought us stories long before that nasty editorial request had ever been made, “showing” and not “telling” a story. The most famous example of diegetic writing can be found in the proverbial famous phrase, “Once upon a time…” Here we are presented with a time locale in which a series of events is about to be recited.

“Once upon a time there lived a King and Queen who had no children. They longed very much for a child; and when at last they had a little daughter they were both delighted, and great rejoicings took place.”
Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault

By contrast, mimetic writing is that in which you are “showing” your story, presenting the world as it is seen to the eye. Mimesis is the writing style that instructors want their students to learn because it immerses the reader into the story’s action; but it is the editors who push for this style because it makes books seem more like television. Consider an example by Robert W. Walker:

“She snatched at the bedside table, foolishly grabbing a handful of wires and turning over her clock and telephone, sending up a cacophony of metallic noise and crying out, ‘Dammit! I want out of this bloody Hell!'”
Pure Instinct (1996)

Whereas diegetic writing makes us feel distant, as though we are being lectured about events that have taken place, mimetic writing makes us feel as though we are eyewitnesses. Mimetic writing allows us to experience a story as opposed to merely hearing about a story, and in this capacity the chances stand that a story will be more memorable, more thrilling, because it tends to affect the senses. And because of the effects of mimetic writing, it tends to assign to the principles of diegetic writing a negative impression. Diegetic writing is boring; mimetic writing is exciting, etc. etc.

In the grand scheme of things, distinguishing between the two is important because it helps both writers and readers in the navigational method of a story. Constructively speaking, one should not be held in importance over the other. Diegetic and mimetic writing are tools for storytelling. Their worth as literary devices lies in how they are applied, the goal being to harmonize the two.

To the modern reader, encountering diegetic writing at the outset of a novel can indicate a boring read to ensue, and this is understandable. Opening a story by going straight into the action (in media res) is a level-headed maneuver, but depending upon the circumstances, diegesis will need to be inserted at some point in time. This is where the craft of writing needs to be understood in terms of an art form unto itself. But it is here that the argument may be frustrated, because where the fledgling writer may be turned away for diegetic writing, prolifically published authors may be writing in the diegetic form with impunity. The opening lines of the sequel to Stephen King’s The Shining (1980) is a case in point:

“After Wilmington, the daily drinking stopped. He’d go a week, sometimes two, without anything stronger than diet soda. He’d wake up without a hangover, which was good. He’d wake up thirsty and miserable — wanting — which wasn’t. Then there would come a night. Or a weekend. Sometimes it was a Budweiser ad on TV that set him off — fresh-faced young people with nary a beergut among them, having cold ones after a vigorous volleyball game. Sometimes it was seeing a couple of nice-looking women having after-work drinks outside of some pleasant little café, the kind of place with a French name and lots of hanging plants.” — Doctor Sleep (2013)

King is toying with the language to make the writing seem mimetic, but it is diegetic nonetheless. We are not experiencing a first hand event, a specific scene is not being described, and spans of time are being glossed over so that the reader is distanced from any particular point of action.

Interestingly enough, some of literature’s most famous writers are bound to diegetic writing in ways that render the advice to “show don’t tell” a story perfectly inane. P.D. James, for example, spends a large, very large amount of energy expounding on her diegesis in her Death Comes to Pemberley (2011), and I’m certain editors were more than pleased to publish the work, especially considering how it became an instant hit television series.

What this all means is that at its root, good writing is simply good writing, diegetic or mimetic. The key is to understand how to intertwine the two so that the story makes sense in every way that it needs to be, all the while being pleasurable to read. In essence, to avoid diegetic writing is to risk either rendering a story too long, by having to describe every last scene that leads to the next, or it is to risk confusing readers as to what is really going on.