The word “vignette” originates from the French “vigne,” which means “little vine” and refers to the vine motifs used sometimes as decorative embellishments to a text. Put a pin in that phrase “decorative embellishments to a text” because we’re going to come back to it.
There is a fair bit of conflicting commentary regarding vignettes. Some people refer to short stories or flash fiction as vignettes. Often, a personal essay is described as a vignette. These are not entirely accurate.
For me, short stories and flash fiction are about complete stories with the classic story elements of protagonist, antagonist, conflict, complications, resolution, and so on. A personal essay may or may not be a vignette. So let’s explore this narrative form today and see how it is different from these various other forms of writing.
Vignettes are, quite possibly, one of the most prevalent forms of storytelling ever. The earliest oral stories many of us grew up hearing were, most likely, personal vignettes from family members and friends. Vignettes are also common in the stories we tell about ourselves. They form a vital part of our daily conversations — whether at work, with friends/family, or at public gatherings. Many blogs and social media posts are vignettes too. And, even in non-fiction books/articles, authors tend to insert vignettes to both break up and illustrate their expositions or arguments.
One of the most distinctive things about the vignette form is that it can be about just a slice of life, a moment, a mood, a tiny everyday detail — as long as it is described in a singular, thought-provoking way.
I took a writing workshop once where we started each day going around the room and asking each participant to take five minutes to orally recite a vignette — personal or otherwise. Some told us about their dinner the night before, some described the room we were sitting in, while some made up entirely fictional characters or settings on the spot. It was a lot of fun as it flexed our creative storytelling muscles.
Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros started out writing poetry before short stories and novels. She told her students that it was important to her to learn to build a room before you can build a house. Her own famous novel, ‘The House on Mango Street‘, can be read as a series of linked vignettes.
I see vignette-writing as learning to build/create the individual architectural elements or furniture/furnishings for a room or a house. I have also often found my way into a larger story by starting with several individual vignette-like scenes or sketches about my characters, settings, etc., or even to help me get unstuck while in the middle of a story. Sometimes, a vignette remains a “finger exercise” and does not turn into a story at all. That’s fine too.
Below, in no particular order, are a few key practices and attributes related to the writing of vignettes. Do share your own in the comments section. And, if you have any favorite vignettes written by others, do share those too.
1/ A vignette is a short, descriptive, often literary, essay or sketch — fictional or from real life. It can be in the first, second, or third person point of view. But, mostly, the entire piece will have a single versus alternating points of view.
2/ Typically, it comprises of one or two short impressionistic scenes or moments or gives an insightful, keen impression about a character, an idea, a theme, a setting, or an object. However, it is definitely not about exposition or argument.
3/ It does not need to conform to any structure or a specific plot. In other words, it does not require, though it can include, a specific beginning, middle, end, conflict, resolution and other such attributes that we typically require of other storytelling. Often, this gives vignettes a sort of unfinished, unresolved quality, but not in a negative sense.
4/ There are no restrictions regarding the narrative structure (prose, poetry, script, etc.) or genre (humor, horror, fantasy, speculative, literary, erotica, etc.)
5/ In terms of length, a vignette is typically 800-1000 words and can be as short in length as a few lines. There are, of course, exceptions.
6/ If there is one thing a vignette must do for the reader, it is to move them by evoking a certain mood or emotion. This is another point of difference with other written narrative forms — say, a larger story or even a poem — which are both, generally, about evoking more than one mood or emotion or thought or idea.
7/ It can be standalone or part of a larger narrative. When part of a larger narrative, it will typically still stand by itself without relying much at all on the overall narrative plot. A good example of this can be found in G B Edwards’ The Life of Ebenezer Le Page. While it is a fictional autobiography of a Guernsey man, there are many quaint and wonderful character vignettes as well as Guernsey life vignettes embedded in the overall narrative that could easily stand on their own outside of the overall novel [Read the overall review here.]
8/ Sometimes, a set of loosely-connected vignettes can, together, create a larger overall plot-driven narrative. But, even in this latter case, each individual vignette is usually capable of standing on its own. A wonderful example here is Dickens’ Sketches by Boz — a loosely-connected set of sketches that gives us both an amazing cast of characters as well as some of the best writing describing 19th-century London. Another is, as mentioned earlier, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street: a series of vignettes that, together, tell us the larger story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become.
9/ Four forms of prose writing that depend almost entirely on the personal vignette are: letters, journals, memoirs, and (auto)biography. There are many, many examples here, of course. You can find a few related to letter-writing here. And, a few related to journals here. We’ll get to the memoir and (auto)biography soon enough.
10/ And, finally, remember that phrase from earlier: “decorative embellishments to a text?” The most important technique in writing a vignette is the age-old rule: “Show, Don’t Tell.” Keep in mind, though, that composing a vignette is very much about precision, accuracy, and control. I like to think of vignettes as snapshots in time. The similarity is that both are about trying to capture a single, precise moment: the former with words and the latter with an image. So, “show, don’t tell” does not mean running rampant with florid phrases and descriptions. It does mean picking the right sensory details to communicate the mood or emotion you’re after. Figurative language through the use of similes, metaphors, alliteration, personification, allusions, etc., can be very helpful here.
Let’s look at a very simple, commonplace example: a rainy day. Rather than writing “It was a rainy day”, how about:
Big fat rain-drops sprinkled down merrily on the green lawns, sending up a heady, sweet smell of soil and grass.
— to communicate happy or light or funny.
Like sharp, cold spears, rain started falling hard and fast onto their bare skins, making them run for the nearest shelter.
— to communicate dark, sad or serious.