When we think about writers, we often imagine someone spending years crafting a gripping plot with twists and turns that hook their readers right from the opening pages. But not all writing needs to be novel-length. Sometimes less really can be more.
Here, we’ll take a look at vignettes, including the characteristics of this short form of writing, how they’re different from conventional short stories, and a few famous examples of vignettes in literature and beyond.
What Is a Vignette?
The vignette definition comes from a French phrase meaning “little vine.” Originally, vignettes had nothing to do with writing at all; they were decorative designs of vine leaves and branches found on the corners or front pages of books.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the term was used in reference to written works. While still maintaining its meaning related to decorative sketching, the vignette in literature is a short piece of writing highlighting a snapshot of an event or a moment in time. The language used is often descriptive, with vivid details and imagery.
Vignettes can be standalone pieces of writing since they’re less about moving a plot forward and more focused on finer details. But they can also be found tucked into novels and short stories as part of a larger narrative—like a zoom lens on a particular character or event.
Examples of Vignette
A notable example of vignettes in literature is Margaret Atwood’s The Female Body. The seven vignettes that make up this piece are short reflections on the objectification of women’s bodies and the differences between men and women. Some are longer than others, but each can stand alone or be seen as part of the total collection.
You can also spot vignettes in TV shows and films. They often take the form of flashbacks, particularly when the information shown to the audience isn’t adding anything to the plot.
The TV show Orange Is The New Black offers plenty of vignette examples on-screen. The flashback scenes of individual characters provide more insight into who that person is, their backstory, or how they see the world. They don’t advance the main story; rather, they serve to enhance our understanding of each character.
Similarly, there are momentary vignettes in When Harry Met Sally, in which interviews with real couples telling the story of how they met are woven throughout the fictional plot. The interviews don’t develop the plot but instead add to the overall feeling of romance the movie conveys.
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The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Although the length of a novel, Cisneros’s work is actually a series of vignettes. While descriptive and enjoyable on their own, it’s only when they’re put together into the larger collection that we see the full picture of life in this Chicago neighborhood.
The protagonist, Esperanza, narrates her observations and memories from life on Mango Street:
“But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in.”
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway was known for his elaborate descriptions of settings and people. While many of his novels and short stories contain vignette examples, he also wrote a number of standalones. In his short story collection, In Our Time, he intersperses his story chapters with vignettes that focus on the setting of war.
“Nick sat against the wall of the church where they had dragged him to be clear of machine gun fire in the street. Both legs stuck out awkwardly. He had been hit in the spine. His face was sweaty and dirty. The sun shone on his face. The day was very hot…The pink wall of the house opposite had fallen out from the roof, and an iron bedstead hung twisted toward the street.”
Vignette vs. Short Story
It’s easy to think a vignette is similar to a short story, but there are important differences. Most short stories are between 1,000 and 10,000 words and are structured like a novel with a beginning, middle, and end.
Vignettes, on the other hand, are simply a moment in time. They don’t need to follow a typical narrative structure because there’s no story being told—it’s all description and imagery.
Vignette vs. Flash Fiction
Flash fiction can be just as short as a vignette at under 1,000 words, but these works are more like a mini short story.
Pieces of flash fiction typically follow a three-act structure with a defined plot, including a conflict the protagonist is facing. The narrative will often start in the middle of this conflict, with the resolution coming after descriptions of how the character ended up in that situation to begin with.
While they can be descriptive, vignettes don’t conform to this narrative structure and usually give more visual details than actual plot.
Keep Your Writing Short and Sweet
Vignettes are a great way to practice your descriptive creative writing, whether you’re sticking to short stories or hoping to write a bestselling novel. Focus on the granular details by showing rather than telling your reader what’s happening. In no time at all, you’ll have created your very first vignette!
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