How to Write a Vignette
A vignette describes a short composition that can nevertheless display a high degree of compositional skill. Vignettes appear both as stand-alone pieces, similar to flash fiction, and as components of longer stories or plays. Brevity is the key to an effective vignette, though many writers find it valuable to establish a wider context for their works.
Types and Traits of Vignettes
Vignettes appear in fiction, drama and film. The prominence of vignettes in film, where they appear as stand-alone scenes outside a main narrative, has influenced their use in other artistic forms. In many films, such as Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train,” a series of vignettes can form the overall pastiche of a plot. Vignettes focus on a single moment and rely on impressionistic details, such as sensory descriptions, to convey an overall mood. These short pieces often suggest a world outside their own scope and, though they contain no independent plot, can contribute to a much larger narrative.
Establish the Context
Vignettes can derive a great deal of power from suggestion, in which the brief scene implies a grander narrative framework. Series of vignettes can create this framework through shared characters or setting. Stand-alone vignettes, to accomplish the impressionistic impact that defines the form, also benefit from a wider imaginative context. For example, a writer might wish to compose a vignette that described a child playing alone. The writer would need to imagine the reasons for the child’s solitude to inject the suggestive details that give vignettes their power. The establishment of context for vignettes becomes an imaginative exercise, and the vignette becomes the vessel of a much larger story.
Focus on Brevity
Brevity is the chief hallmark of a vignette. Though the wider context of the story can tempt writers into lengthier compositions, vignettes rely on suggestion, not exposition. In fiction, vignettes should never exceed 1,000 words. Writers should rid their vignettes of unnecessary details. If a sentence adds nothing to the overall mood of the piece or does not work to further the writer’s contextual vision, it should not remain in the vignette. Prune the vignette of redundancies. For example, avoid repeated mentions of the weather or characters’ physical traits.
Notable Examples of Literary Vignettes
Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” is an example of a series of loosely connected vignettes that comprise a greater narrative. William Faulkner’s “The Hamlet” and Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” both contain instances of stand-alone vignettes that contribute to mood without developing the plot. For free-standing examples, consult Margaret Atwood’s “Murder in the Dark,” a collection of all her published vignettes. William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” an amalgam of dreamlike sequences that depict the adventures of a drug addict, presents a less conventional take on the vignette.
- Carson-Newman University: Dr. Wheeler's Website -- Literary Terms and Definitions -- V
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Vignette
- The New York Times: Movies -- Jarmusch's "Mystery Train," Vignettes Linked by Elvis
- Storyacious: Storyacious Practices -- On Writing Vignettes
- The Bull Calf Review: Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood
- PopMatters: An Unlikely Candidate for Influence -- "Naked Lunch" at Fifty Years Young
Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.