How To Write A Vignette

Short stories, poems, and vignettes, like their long-form counterparts, can be used as literary devices. Their brevity makes them ideal for exploring and expressing a specific detail or moment in a larger story. In the context of fiction writing, vignettes can be used to establish a setting, describe a character, or provide a snapshot of a moment in time. The use of vignettes in nonfiction allows the writer to focus on a single topic in detail. Whatever your purpose, here are steps for how to write a vignette that will get you started in the right direction.


Master the art of the hook

Writing vignettes that suck readers in so that they want to learn more isn’t as simple as telling the reader the surface details, but rather can be quite a task. You’ll need to set the scene carefully to give your reader maximum context, which will let you get to the real meat — the details of action, conflict, and emotion — quicker. Creating a hook is a good way to prepare the reader for what lies ahead, and it can happen in a number of ways. You can choose a relatable setting that will resonant with a significant number of readers, like a wedding where you’re able to showcase the groom’s neuroses along with the bride’s disdain for mudroom weddings. Or you can use a hook at the beginning of the vignette to give the reader a glimpse of the world and allow them to practice familiarizing themselves with an environment — which will allow you to jump right into the scene space with the elements you’ve brainstormed and culled from your memory.

Writing a great hook also helps your vignette appear even shorter than it is. Keep in mind that the shorter your summation, the better chance you have as a writer to not flesh out unnecessary details. Read your summaries aloud to hear how the words will roll off your readers’ tongues. The hook should be just long enough to grab a reader’s attention and not so long that it detracts from the forefront of your vignette. It can also help for you to use particular details that generate interest by giving the reader a taste of the full story. Don’t bog the beginning down with too many details, but give the reader a sense of the characters, conflict, or emotional tone so that they’ll feel the need to learn more.

Keep it focused

Vignettes are all about providing context for your character and their surroundings, but the best way to give your reader that context is to keep things focused. The scenes in the vignette should all fit together into a cohesive whole, while also being distinct on their own. As you write, think about the continuum from slice of life to author intrusion. Can you seamlessly weave back and forth between showing your character’s world and coloring it in for the reader, or must it be a choppy, disjointed looking experience? Are the details capturing the essence of how you want the reader to feel about the character and their situation, or are they just on-the-fly inferences you’re filling in about what’s going on? Completing a successful vignette means making sure there’s no tension and/or conflict in each scene on their own, and also a strong cumulative effect that paints a complete picture for the reader.

Make each scene count. If you have ten scenes or less, you can have them all be full of tension or conflict. If you have more scenes though, you’ll probably need to narrow it down and focus it more on creating a sense of cohesion across the vignette as a whole. A great way to do this is to create a few moments of tension or conflict that foreshadow a conflict that would affect the entirety of the story even more, and have a cumulative overall impact on the reader. This makes your vignette cohesive and pulls in all its disparate elements while also providing a hook at the end for a reason to come back again.

Don’t have backstory

A vignette generally takes place over just one moment, so beware of describing a character’s entire background, either in your vignette or in the scene preceding it. If the characters have come from other parts of the story, save their introduction for the scene following the vignette. Feel free to have other characters appear or reappear later as plot developments warrant. Do remember to make your vignette pinpoint-specific and include specific setting descriptions to paint a mental image for your reader. But remember, this is a short piece of writing, so don’t waste the limited space for overindulgence.

Vignettes have small ordinary moments that reveal an extraordinary state of existence. So you should choose ordinary circumstances to present them. Invite your readers to notice the smaller moments or sights or sounds that most people take for granted. In spending just a moment or two with a character, you can provide a unique perspective on ordinary life. Play with the time frame. Let the reader see the past to bring an event up to the present moment. Try to end on a twist.

State that theme clearly and boldly

Because a vignette is a small work excerpt, you need to make sure that the big picture of a theme is clear. You should write vignettes that delve into the depths of certain characters and emotions. Just as the theme is larger than conflict, so is the word vignette. It should highlight particular characters, giving them a sense of identity as the story goes along and as it moves through its three-part, five-act, or seven-chapter structure.

The character in vignettes is often under a microscope because the reader isn’t sure about her story. She must be shrouded in mystery, but in a way that also provides the reader with the required props for the comprehension of random vignettes. The vignette character, then, is typically a subject that lends itself to exploration or enhancement. She should serve as a paragon, but become better known as the author progresses story events. The springboards from which some of a vignette character’s identity comes should never be the harbinger of the story’s climax.

Balance theme with all characters and plot threads

Vignettes should stand alone from the world of a story or novel, but remain rooted enough that they add texture to a narrative. To truly learn how to write a vignette, you should study some examples of the best vignette examples that you can find. Do these vignettes complement or subvert the protagonist or main character of the story? Many times, the author might use a vignette in a larger scene, to provide a useful backdrop that completes the snippet like a portrait fits into a mural.

As an example of wrapping a vignette into a longer narrative, take a look at How to Dig a Hole to China by Katherine Roeder. This longer narrative provides a plot-oriented vignette, outlining a two-page procedure for tunneling to the other side of the world. The vignette begins light, with the example of a boy asking Dad what a hole to China would even look like. The length intensifies as the section of the instructions progresses. The sudden appearance of spades, shovels, and water-filled dustpans, along with misdirections about weight and falling, creates humor that adeptly juxtaposes with the possible physical ramifications of this lengthy project. Read the simple prescription once, and then imagine the ramifications of following it. If a chapter of fiction followed the physical labor necessary for the father and son to build this tunnel, it would leave very little physical or mental room for anything else, making this one of the most subversive—and hilarious—two-pages in fiction.

Think in terms of montage

In a vignette, the details that fill out the story come second to building a strong character and emotion. You don’t want to aim for naturalistic language, because with such a small space, every word becomes important. Vignettes are like kinetic action sequences in film that condense up into a single freeze frame of a moment. Use this quality to your advantage, to fire off a quick piece that doesn’t waste words. 

Consider the sentence, “The fire was beautiful, like the great lion roaring at the world,” and think of how easy that would be to expand on into something complete, right? The image of the fiery lion alone could support an essay. However, the author Yoko Tawada uses that sentence to anchor a micro-story, a vignette, in the small Japanese collection Silence. She expands the original “like the lion roaring” part into an entire paragraph of the fire’s roar, heat, and the characters’ responses. Then she ends with the simple, extreme image of the animal itself.

Vignettes take us out of reality and give us a choice vantage point on another person’s life. Start by taking snapshots of your character’s life that show conflict and resolution. Like an actual camera, these frozen slices can zoom in, leaving out unnecessary detail and cutting to show the true face of conflict. As a result, vignettes feel meaningful and intense in a way that many longer stories fail to be. They ask questions, rather than explaining or carrying out a chain of events. 

Learn it backwards and forwards

If you don’t want to seem sheerly incompetent, remember to “show early, show often.” The reader sees the vignette being created before his or her very eyes, rather than being told about it or eavesdropping on an important conversation. The vignette is written in chronological order, instead of in “montage” form, and it has action rather than being entirely dialogue-driven. No matter how literary you think your book is, you cannot have characters sitting around and snapping quips at each other. It won’t work. Remember to put your story in the past, present or future — the vignette isn’t a flash-forward, backstory or flash-sideways, even if there’s the inevitable premonition or instance of déjà vu. The vignette opens in the present and stays in the same place, even if the narrator is reflecting upon the past. Without the aid of melodrama, without sudden revelation and without intent on your part, the reader will still “feel” the truth in the vignette. It should be pregnant with emotion and etched in the mind of the reader as if they witnessed it themselves.

Choose the point-of-view of the narrator carefully. A small tale told by a giant – or vice versa – will put the reader in a different position. You might choose to tell your vignette in the third person, so that you can speak directly to your reader and frame the action just so. Or, you might tell it in the first person to allow perspective and empathy for your narrator — or maybe even for his or her antagonist, if the vignette is done from their point-of-view. In the second paragraph, the reader sees a general idea of who the character is, and what they’re like. Is there something that makes the character “iconic?” Is their amnesia or a curse, or an illness or disability? Do they have a measurable characteristic flaw, need, or other “hook” in their personality? Do they feel or react to things a certain way — and would the reader recognize it?

Use language and writing devices

Ask yourself a series of questions about how you want your vignette to read, including what it will be framed/introduced by, what purpose it will serve, what length and tone it will have, and whether it will have multiple parts or set scenes. Decide what tone your vignette will have — is it somber and tender, or light and playful? Does it serve a structural or expository purpose, or should it be used to introduce a specific tone? Some ideas for framing a vignette might be to use dialogue, a letter, or something that the characters have created, as a means for introducing the story.

Then, look back on your story and see where points could use a little more definition or description. Think about what the characters are doing when your story takes place, and whether they are in locations that are easy to describe. When you’re done with that, start to outline your vignette. Decide what it will be made up of — will it be one scene or multiple scenes, a paragraph long, or anything else? Then determine what tone, purpose, and setting you want your vignette to have, and the way you want to write it, based on the questions you decided on in paragraph one.

Include dialogue

Vignettes are much shorter than works of fiction, so the brevity forces you to zero in on the most important details. This doesn’t mean that you can’t add extras, however. Vignettes benefit from including dialogue, and you can also lean on sensory detail and metaphor to make complicated thoughts or feelings accessible. Pay attention to word choices as well, since big, bold language makes vignettes easier to read.

Your goal with a vignette is to start strong and finish strong and ensure there’s a good balance between dialog and description. While you may start a vignette with an intimate observation, you should end it with a solid plot point or moral lesson that makes the reader want to keep on reading. Like any other type of writing, you should write your vignette a bit unevenly. But if you’re looking for a way to cut edge in the right direction, be sure to invest extra time into your introduction, to make it feel like an exciting invitation into the rest of the piece.

Vignettes are important in that they provide insight into their host text. While the majority of your vignette should be able to stand alone, you may want to provide links to a larger work, as well as a general overview of the chapter, character, or story that this vignette serves. In other words, once you’ve written your vignette, make sure it reads well on its own, but spend a little time researching what it links. What’s the scene about? Why does this scene need to be told? What does it mean in terms of plot or mood? Do you provide answers to these questions, or at least mention that they exist? Now that you’re ready to write a vignette, what will you write first?

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