Writing

What Is a Vignette In Literature? Defining the Literary Device, Plus 5 Tips On Writing Vignettes

Written by MasterClass

Apr 25, 2019 • 4 min read

A writer’s job is to engage readers through words. Vignettes—poetic slices-of-life—are a literary device that bring us deeper into a story. Vignettes step away from the action momentarily to zoom in for a closer examination of a particular character, concept, or place. Writers use vignettes to shed light on something that wouldn’t be visible in the story’s main plot.

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What Is a Vignette?

In literature, a vignette is a short passage that uses imagery to describe a subject in greater detail. Using descriptive language, a vignette helps readers visualize a character, a place, or a moment. Vignette is a French word that means “little vine.” It is named after the decorative vine leaves that sometimes adorned nineteenth-century books.

What Is the Difference Between a Vignette, a Short Story, and Flash Fiction?

Vignettes are sometimes confused with short stories and flash fiction, but there is one major difference between them: Short stories and flash fiction are complete works, while a vignette is a smaller part of a story. Here are the defining characteristics of each:

Short story:

  • A short literary work of (on average) 1,000 to 10,000 words.
  • A full narrative structured with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Features a protagonist and a central conflict and progresses through time.

Flash fiction:

  • A very short literary work that is usually less than 1,000 words.
  • Follows a story arc with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Usually starts the story in the middle of the conflict or action.
  • Also referred to as “postcard fiction” or “micro-fiction.”

Vignette:

  • Short scenes within a larger story that are usually under 1,000 words.
  • Designed to give more visual context to a character, place, or event.
  • Not bound to a narrative structure; rather, focuses on description.
  • Time doesn’t pass in a vignette; it describes a moment in time.

Examples of Vignette in Literature

A vignette is a literary device that is effective in letting the reader visualize a world created in the writer’s mind. Some authors are known for their eloquent use of vignettes in painting a portrait of their story.

Take this vignette from Jack London’s novel The Call of the Wild (1903):

“With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the Huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long-drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence.”

Or this one, from Willa Cather’s My Antonia (1918):

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”

However, some writers also write vignettes as standalone stories, or as part of a larger body of work exploring one idea or premise.

  1. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, uses vignettes as the foundation for some of her work. Her satirical essay The Female Body is a series of seven vignettes examining and objectifying the female physique to establish how women are seen through the eyes of a male-dominant society.
  2. Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time is a collection of vignettes and short stories. While most writers place vignettes within a larger work, Hemingway used them as standalone pieces in this book. In one short story, a young man becomes a substitute matador when his friend drinks too much to do his job.

Can Vignettes Be Used Outside of Literature?

Vignettes offer a writer a great amount of creative flexibility and lend themselves to other forms of communication. Television programs often use vignettes to bring more context to the present-day storylines. They are a technique used to reveal more details about the characters and how they see the world. Orange Is the New Black, a Netflix series following a group of incarcerated women, uses flashbacks to reveal the backstory of each character. These are vignettes, visual digressions from the plot that let us see the world through a character’s eyes.

5 Tips on Writing a Vignette

Writing a vignette is an opportunity to connect with readers. It is a passageway into the story through a visual representation. Follow these tips on how to write a simple vignette.

  1. Don’t conform. You’re not bound to traditional plot structure within a vignette. There is no beginning, middle, end sequence you need to follow.
  2. Use visual language. Show, don’t tell. Use descriptive language and include a lot of details to paint a vivid picture in readers’ minds of what is happening.
  3. Zoom in for a microscopic view. A vignette is like a camera lens. Zoom in for a close-up look of the details of the moment and describe what the character sees. Be specific.
  4. Appeal to the senses. Connect to a reader through their senses. Use words that show what a character is feeling, seeing, and hearing.
  5. Go big, then edit. While you want the vignette to be concise, start by writing everything down that you imagine this scene to be. Then, go back and shape the imagery, trimming any irrelevant bits.