A vignette is a short, descriptive piece of writing in literature, or a brief scene in a play or movie. In this Buzzle article, let us look at its meaning, a few literary examples, along with some good tips on writing a great vignette.
Did You Know?
The pictorial part of a postage stamp, a picture which fades off gradually into the surrounding paper, and small decorative designs or pictures placed at the beginning or end of the chapter of a book, are all also called vignettes.
The term vignette can be defined as a short literary sketch. The word originates from the French word ‘vigne’, which means ‘little vine’, as in a short description of an object or scene. An ideal vignette is supposed to be short, to the point, and should bring out the emotions of the writer. It normally appears as a stand-alone piece of literature, or as a part of long stories or stage plays.
The vignette’s primary purpose is to express and vividly describe a place, emotion, setting, person, or object, in short. Typically, it is around 800 – 1,000 words, but in some cases it can be under 500 words or even shorter, especially if it is a vignette poem. It will describe 1 or 2 scenes about a person, object, place, etc. One can also write the piece from many different points of view, although most will use just one as words are limited.
Vignette Examples in Literature
The House on Mango Street
This is a great collection of vignettes created by Sandra Cisneros, who writes about the life of a little girl who lives in Chicago.
Vignette Snippet: ‘They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn’t have to move each year. And our house would have running water and pipes that worked. And inside it would have real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on TV. And we’d have a basement and at least three washrooms so that when we took a bath we wouldn’t have to tell everybody. Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence. this was the house Papa talked about when he held a lottery ticket and this was the house Mama dreamed up in the stories she told us before we went to bed.’
Murder in the Dark
This is a great collection of all the vignettes written by author and poet Margaret Atwood. A rather dark look on everyday life.
Vignette Snippet: ‘Now you see rows of them, marching, marching; yours is the street-level view, because you are lying down. Power is the power to smash, two hold your legs, two your arms, the fifth shoves a pointed instrument into you; a bayonet, the neck of a broken bottle, and it’s not even wartime, this is a park, with a children’s playground, tiny red and yellow horses, it’s daytime, men and women stare at you out of their closed car windows. Later the policeman will ask you what you did to provoke this. Boots were not such a bright idea after all.’
Sketches by Boz
Charles Dickens used many vignettes in this book, which explores various locales and the varied strata of the population in London.
Vignette Snippet: ‘See him again on Sunday in his state-coat and cocked-hat, with a large-headed staff for show in his left hand, and a small cane for use in his right. How pompously he marshals the children into their places! and how demurely the little urchins look at him askance as he surveys them when they are all seated, with a glare of the eye peculiar to beadles! The churchwardens and overseers being duly installed in their curtained pews, he seats himself on a mahogany bracket, erected expressly for him at the top of the aisle, and divides his attention between his prayer-book and the boys.’
This unconventional collection of vignettes by William Burroughs contains a lot of surreal scenes, which are experienced through the eyes of a drug addict.
Vignette Snippet: ‘I was standing outside myself trying to stop those hangings with ghost fingers … I am a ghost wanting what every ghost wants-a body-after the Long Time moving through odorless alleys of space where no life is, only the colorless no smell of death…Nobody can breathe and smell it through pink convolutions of gristle laced with crystal snot, time shit and black blood filters of flesh.’
Vignette Poem Examples
Florida Nature by Rhonda Johnson
Footprints drift on a wetland,
swiveling through pewter of morning
as contours of a stately heron unfold
with plumes air-brushed by ripples;
and colors follow her along grasses
in lively strokes from a textured night,
to dip with Florida’s studded garlands
while she, curling along a marsh
settles upon her tinted breast
in a lithe waltzing motion, that hikers
inhabit this vignette of quiet reverence
flowing in the state of lush everglade.
Coquette by Ronald Zammit
Silhouette out of the mist she came
Barrette in hair she looked radiant
Vignette-like beauty set in a frame
Georgette covered body so fragrant.
Pochette carried in hand by her hips
Statuette body, forbidden fruit
Cigarette dangling off her red lips
Coquette at the house of ill repute
How to Write a Vignette
Establishing Context: The writing of a vignette can cause great impact on the reader if the emotions of the scene are pushed forward through a method of suggestion, through which the piece will hint towards something much bigger. It is important that your writing makes the reader imagine the setting you are describing. For example, if you are writing about a man who is sitting alone in a room, you will have to imagine reasons as to why such a situation has occurred, and add small details to your vignette which will suggest these thoughts to the reader. This helps pique the curiosity of the reader.
Keep the Writing Concise: This is the main feature of a vignette. Although one might get tempted to write further due to the wider context, one should stick to providing the reader with suggestions of the story rather, than giving out the whole plot. No vignette should be longer than a thousand words. Once the writing is done, the author must search and remove all unnecessary details, especially if they add no value to the mood or context that needs to be conveyed. Ideally, if a particular trait or characteristic of the subject is mentioned once, it should not be mentioned again.
Freedom of Structure: Apart from the limit on number of words, there is complete freedom to form the vignette how you like. You can choose whether you will follow a fixed structure, with a beginning, middle, and end, or not. You can also choose whether you want to have a central subject, whether the vignette will be resolved at the end, or remain unresolved. There is no restriction on the style of writing or its genre. You can completely mix it up with simple language or very detailed writing with complex language. In short, you are limited only by your creativity.
Brainstorming for Ideas: Once you have settled on a subject, you can find more ideas for your writing piece by asking yourself the questions Who? What? When? Where? Why? And How? These questions about your subject should give you an idea about what you would like to write. Alternatively, if you are feeling especially creative, you could just freely write down whatever comes to your mind, followed by a good editing session.
Another popular way to search for ideas is by creating association diagrams. In this method, one writes down the subject of the vignette on a sheet of paper, and follows that by another word which is related to the subject, Continue this till you have a large group of associated words which you can use in your writing piece. For example, if your subject is summer, then your next words could be sun, heat, ice cream, food, harvest, and so on. Decide on the style and the sensory details you wish to add, so that the reader will experience the feelings that you wish to convey.
As you can see, vignettes are not very difficult to create. Remember that, while writing a vignette, you are creating an atmosphere, not a story. Reading vignette examples made by professional authors can be a great aid in helping you understand the nuances.