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When you read magazines, stories, or blog posts, you’ll sometimes come across a detailed description of a short scene from someone’s life. These snippets may capture only a single moment of a long life, but they can also capture your attention and make you interested in learning more. 

These short descriptions are called vignettes, and they exist as small pieces of whole stories, like “little vines”—which is actually the direct translation of their name.

What Is a Vignette? 

Vignettes can be found in novels, plays, sketch stories, poetry, and films. Whichever format you find it in, a vignette typically captures a single moment or aspect of the character, event, or theme in question. You might say they represent “a slice of life.”

In literature this can refer to a short scene, whether fiction or nonfiction, that portrays a single event or a defining characteristic of a person, idea, or any other element in the story. It can also be an illustration or a short clip. 

The term vignette was first used to refer to the little vines drawn on the pages of printed works. These decorative elements were usually found on the title page or the first page of a chapter of a printed book. Like the vines on these pages, vignettes correspond to a small section of a much larger idea. 

Vignettes focus on description, and usually include little plot detail, if any. Note that vignettes are usually excerpts or parts of a longer story, so they are not stand-alone writings. 

Vignettes vs. Short Stories

You might be tempted to think of a vignette as a short story. However, since a vignette doesn’t always have the elements needed for a plot, it may not always be considered a short story. 

A short story generally needs to have a protagonist and a conflict that forms the plot. In contrast, a vignette is designed to portray only one small glimpse of one of these elements: perhaps a quick look at one aspect of the character’s personality, or one angle of the conflict or plot. 

MasterClass defines a vignette as usually being under 1,000 words. Although flash fiction also typically has a similar word count, flash fiction, like the short story, also has a clear story arc. 

In essence, a vignette might offer you a clearer picture of a larger story—but it will never be the full picture. 

How to Write a Vignette

If you want to write a vignette portraying a single moment or aspect of a character’s life, the following tips can help you.

1. Choose which moment or aspect you want to focus on.

One question to ask yourself is: Which moment or aspect of this character’s life will give the most accurate picture of what I want to convey? You will likely find several options. You may try fleshing each one out in a scene to see which works best, or you may choose what you feel will be the most powerful glimpse into a character’s personality. 

2. Paint a picture. 

As all good writers know, in writing it’s important to “show, don’t tell.” Try to awaken your reader’s imagination by showing them what’s happening, and not merely telling them.

Using strong adjectives and verbs will help you achieve this. 

3. Appeal to different senses.

Although you want to give your readers an experience they can see in their mind’s eye, don’t limit yourself to just the visual sense. Think about what you want the reader to imagine themselves hearing, smelling, or feeling. 

4. Don’t be afraid to zoom in on important details. 

Just as a person viewing an event can focus on a certain detail while blocking out all else, write your vignette with this in mind, zooming in when needed. 

For example, if you want to focus on your leading lady’s vanity, you may want to describe in detail how she goes about getting ready in the morning, while skipping all the other routine morning tasks. Highlighting this lets you bring your reader into a closer look at this aspect of her personality.

5. Write first, then edit. 

Let your creative juices flow so you can explore different ways of imagining your vignette. After you write the first draft, then go over it and weed out any irrelevant parts in order to strengthen your writing. 

What Is an Example of a Vignette? 

Here is an example of a vignette found in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, in the chapter that describes Master Archibald Craven on one of his travels: 

It was a clear little stream which ran quite merrily along on its narrow way through the luscious damp greenness. Sometimes it made a sound rather like very low laughter as it bubbled over and round stones. He saw birds come and dip their heads to drink in it and then flick their wings and fly away. It seemed like a thing alive and yet its tiny voice made the stillness seem deeper. The valley was very, very still.

As he sat gazing into the clear running of the water, Archibald Craven gradually felt his mind and body both grow quiet, as quiet as the valley itself. He wondered if he were going to sleep, but he was not. He sat and gazed at the sunlit water and his eyes began to see things growing at its edge. There was one lovely mass of blue forget-me-nots growing so close to the stream that its leaves were wet and at these he found himself looking as he remembered he had looked at such things years ago. 

What Is a Vignette in Film? 

A vignette can also refer to a short film that shows, just like in its literary counterpart, a single scene or aspect of a character, place, or theme. The vignette can serve as a portrait of a character in the form of a film clip.

Filmmakers can use the vignette as a technique for building an entire film. For example, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts uses a collection of individual vignettes to comprise an entire film. 

An alternative meaning of the word “vignette” refers to a photograph or video that has its edges faded off gradually, which helps focus the viewer’s attention to the center of the image. 

Writing Vignettes

Writing a vignette can be a good way to practice your observation and description skills. Pick a scene or a moment in time and start to write as vivid a description as you can.

The more you practice, the more you will find your overall writing skills improving and giving you a stronger grasp of language.

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!


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