Definition from Wikipedia.org: A vignette is a short impressionistic scene that focuses on one moment or character and gives a trenchant [sharp, keen, acute] impression about that character, an idea, setting, and/or object.
RJ says: It’s like a picture you can’t stop staring at.
An Exercise for Greatness
Writing is like improving your penmanship. We all write our sentences with the same 26 letters (unless you’re bilingual.) Some of us write large sloppy letters, or small neat ones. Some of us develop little curls at the ends of our y, or a flourish to our f. Don’t quote me on this, but I would bet that our handwriting (however similar it might be to someone else’s halfway across the world) is as unique as our fingerprints. And the funny thing is, our own handwriting is different now than it was when we were, say, 7 years old.
The same goes for creative writing.
Narrative style and voice (often mistaken for each other, but are indeed different animals—but that’s another post for a different day) can change over the course of years, months, or sometimes just days.
Whether you’re revving up for a large project like a novel, or just want to add some word count to your portfolio, flexing your writing muscles on a frequent basis in these bite-sized chunks can be a fun and rewarding exercise. You can experiment with style, character, Point of View, tense, settings… There is no one set way to write a vignette. It doesn’t even have to make sense, if you want to try something abstract. Stretch your muscles, challenge your strengths, test your weaknesses.
Short Story & Flash Fiction vs Vignettes
Short stories are an entire novel stripped down to less than 10k words. Flash fiction is usually 1.5k and under. For some writers, that’s great. For others, it’s one large anxiety attack in one very small box. You’re expected to write a story that has just as much emotional or intellectual impact as an entire two-hundred-and-fifty-page work of fiction. Yowza!
So when you need a breath, and you need to remember the joy of writing your characters, your settings, and your language, then think of vignettes. Vignettes are like fun, stress-free flash fiction. No plot. No pressure. Just a setting, a point of focus, and a concept. Like a photograph.
A vignette can be 1k words or just two lines. Usually no more than 2k, but hey, I give you permission to do whatever you want. Tell ’em RJ says so.
The One-Two Approach to Writing Vignettes
Take the photograph below as visual example of a vignette. Vignettes are short pieces, without plot or character development, 1k words or less in length, but never boring. This photo is fairly plain, yet unusual in its own right, and the longer you stare at it (even though nothing physically changes and no details are added) you discover more and more.
The two ingredients for a vignette:
- Something to catch your eye and keep you looking. In the photograph, their balancing act is kind of an unusual way to express love, yet these two make it feel effortless, like they’ve done it many times before. It’s their thing. It could symbolize how effortless it feels for them to be together, and to rely on one another.
- Create an atmosphere, not a story. We already know we are looking at an established, trusting couple. We don’t need to watch them fall for each other. Flash Fiction might show us a scene in which their love goes from 100 mph to 0 in a heartbeat, but a vignette is one moment that sums up a thing as a whole with very few words. These people are in love. Take all of their passion, their ups and downs, and show us what that looks like without any backstory. Just here, now.
Here are some things I notice when I look at this photo. [photo from Pexels; click it to enlarge] 1. The man’s toes are curled, holding her shirt down for her. 2. He’s looking at her face, but her eyes are closed; maybe he’s trying to admire her, while her nature is more apt to enjoy the moment, the sensation of their lips. This tells me about their personalities without saying too much. 3. Either the camera is on a tripod or someone else is taking the photograph (and I wonder what sparked them to want to take this picture? is it an engagement photo? a keepsake on their travels to Europe?) 4. It’s taken in a hotel room or on a cruise.
Use this photo as a prompt, if you like.
Why Write Vignettes
Some of the best advice when you’re revising your novel is to “cut what’s fun to write, keep what’s fun to read.” All those long, flowery sentences you whispered to yourself? Cut. That really cute but useless scene where the heroine considers adopting a puppy? Probably a cut, unless it reveals something important to her character, the plot, or serves as foreshadowing an important event.
But with vignettes, it doesn’t matter. In fact, this is the perfect time to explore your 101 Question Character Creation Worksheet you’ve been dying to work into your novel. What flavor ice cream would your character get? Where would they get it? What sort of conversation, if any, would they strike up with a fellow customer in line? What do they think about while eating their ice cream? Do they eat it outside, or do they prefer the AC inside the shop?
Let your mind wander. I give you permission to write what’s fun.
And if it turns into something worth expanding? A whole scene that is intriguing and worth including in your novel? All the better!
Submit Your Shorty Story or Vignette!
Check out Thursday’s post to further explore how to write great vignettes for an audience if you plan to share your work or have it published, and check out the Tweet below for a chance to win a $5 Starbucks gift card!
Hey #writers! I’m looking for 2 #shortstories to feature on https://t.co/POVKYUR64b June 4&7. Both winners will get a $5 Starbucks gift card – have a coffee on me! Send a PDF, Word, or Google Docs of 1 story under 7.5k to firstname.lastname@example.org before May 31. Please post Qs here
— RJ Rasmus (@writingrasmus) May 6, 2018