A vignette (vin-nyet) is a short, descriptive literary passage that conveys an impression about a character, setting, object, or mood. Vignettes contain neither plot nor full narrative description; instead, they are carefully composed verbal sketches that generally occur within a larger work. Vignettes can be found in any literary work, including poems and plays, films, television shows, and journalism.
The word vignette comes from French via the Old French diminutive of vigne, “vineyard.” The English term first appeared in 1751 and referred to a type of “decorative design,” originally an illustration of vine tendrils twined around the boarders of a book page. By 1852, vignette referred to a type of small photographic portrait with blurred edges. Only in 1880 did it finally take on its current meaning, “literary sketch.”
The Narrative Purpose of a Vignette
Writers use vignettes to step away from a larger story and zoom in on a brief, vivid description. The conciseness of the vignette allows the author to convey a strong impression or observation about an idea, a setting, a character, a moment, and/or an object. Vignettes can also amplify symbolism or add additional weight to themes explored within a larger piece, which helps keeps readers engaged.
Vignettes do not tend to advance a literary narrative as much as emphasize the author’s artistry. As they are brief descriptive passages, vignettes tend to create meaning through imagery. They do not generally include any action that advances a plot.
Vignettes are also frequently used to heighten characterization. Authors may use vignettes to deepen readers’ understanding of an individual character by focusing on them in a brief verbal sketch. The descriptive nature of vignettes also means they convey a strong sense of setting.
Vignettes, Flash Fiction, and Short Stories
Vignettes are sometimes confused with flash fiction and short stories, but these literary forms are not interchangeable. Short stories and flash fiction are both self-contained literary narratives that follow a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Vignettes do not have a story arc, nor must they adhere to any pattern of narrative structure. Instead, vignettes are descriptive short scenes within a bigger story that provide greater context for other narrative elements. Additionally, short stories and flash fiction frequently include the passage of time, while a vignette tends to describe a single moment in time.
Vignettes in Pop Culture
Vignettes are commonly used in television shows, such as the Netflix shows Orange is the New Black and Easy or Showtime’s High Maintenance.
Orange is the New Black uses vignettes to enhance characterization. These vignettes, often flashbacks, illustrate scenes from the prisoners’ lives and flesh out their personalities and situations. Although the vignettes generally focus on recurring characters, occasionally they allow audiences to experience a sense of closure when saying goodbye to a departing favorite. For instance, when the character of Poussey Washington was killed in Season Four, the episode ended with a flashback showing a night when Poussey was still alive, free, and exploring New York City. That vignette, and the episode itself, ends with Poussey smiling, thus allowing viewers shocked by her brutal murder to process their emotions less painfully.
Vignettes are also an element of many feature films, particularly independent films that can experiment more with narrative structure. Movies such as Go, Night on Earth, Amores Perros, Cloud Atlas, Magnolia, or Short Cuts eschew a traditional story arc in favor of linking together a series of vignettes, often with reappearing characters.
Examples of Vignettes in Literature
1. Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
This famous novel is composed of 44 vignettes narrated by the protagonist, Esperanza. Each vignette tells her life story through isolated moments or brief descriptions of a character, experience, or situation. For instance, in “Born Bad,” Esperanza describes her aunt Lupe:
Her name was Guadalupe and she was pretty like my mother. Dark. Good to look at. In her Joan Crawford dress and swimmer’s legs. Aunt Lupe of the photographs.
This vignette adds to readers’ understanding of both Guadalupe and Esperanza. They can see Guadalupe clearly through the imagery. Additionally, the use of sentence fragments and the reference to actress Joan Crawford give greater insight into Esperanza as a person.
2. James Joyce, Ulysses
In the section “The Wandering Rocks” from Joyce’s classic experimental novel, various minor characters wander the streets and encounter each other:
Master Brunny Lynam ran across the road and put Father Conmee’s letter to father provincial into the mouth of the bright red letterbox. Father Conmee smiled and nodded and smiled and walked along Mountjoy square east.
Mr Denis J Maginni, professor of dancing, &c., in silk hat, slate frockcoat with silk facings, white kerchief tie, tight lavender trousers, canary gloves and pointed patent boots, walking with grave deportment most respectfully took the curbstone as he passed lady Maxwell at the corner of Dignam’s court.
Each of these moments is a vignette, describing a different inhabitant of Dublin as they go about their daily lives.
3. Li-Young Lee, “Early in the Morning”
In this poem, Lee describes a brief scene from his parents’ marriage:
While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame…
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher’s ink.
This vignette uses vivid visual, auditory, and tactile imagery to describe the brief moment of Lee’s mother brushing her hair while his father watches.
Further Resources on Vignettes
GoodReads has a wonderful list of books written in vignette.
Writers’ Relief has a brief guide for how to write a vignette.
Gotham Writers has a concise and useful exploration of the differences between a vignette and a short story.