A vignette is a literary style that allows the writer to reveal emotion, illustration or simply a descriptive version of an event of thought.
Vignettes are a powerful way to tell your story for several reasons. First, they are short, which in many ways is a powerful writing tool. Have you ever heard of the expressions: In and out or short and sweet? People love something quick. Think of short vignettes as a way to respect your readers time. Secondly, vignettes allow you to write more poetic and emotional prose. For many people writing lengthy passages is difficult and takes away from the emotional appeal the writer was aiming for.
So, let’s look at a short vignette by a writer who is considered a master of succinct and emotional writing – Ernest Hemingway.
“Maera lay still, his head on his arms, his face in the sand. He felt warm and sticky from the bleeding. Each time he felt the horn coming. Sometimes the bull only bumped him with his head. Once the horn went all the way through him and he felt it go into the sand…Maera felt everything getting larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. Then it got larger and larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. Then everything commenced to run faster and faster as when they speed up a cinematograph film. Then he was dead.”
In this short 98-word vignette, Hemingway is able to convey the last moments of a bullfighter. And this is what a vignette is. Short, sweet and to the point, capturing those few moments of a greater experience.
None of us knew what had happened. I could hear the sobs of the girl behind me, the awkward jokes as a kid jabbed me in the side with his yellow #2 pencil. But, it was the horrified look on my fifth-grade teacher’s face that told us all something was horribly wrong. She was watching as a plume of smoke followed a glowing orange ball on the television. Sister Jane suddenly turned toward us as if woken by an explosion. She immediately dropped to her knees and wrapped her gangly, yet warm arms around the first child she saw. It was me. She whispered in my ear, “It’s going to be alright. You are going to be fine.” But, even at ten-years-old, I knew she was saying those words to herself as much as she was using them to comfort a terrified and confused child. Her embrace was warm, loving and genuine. Over the next few minutes, Sister Jane doled out her loving hug to the fifteen others students in our classroom. I wouldn’t know until ten years later that Sister Jane had lost one of her best friends – teacher Christa McAuliffe. I doubt any child in our class would forget the day that the Challenger space shuttle exploded 73-seconds into flight. And without Sister Jane, I may have not known the power of a hug.
This was my experience of the Challenger disaster in 1986. As you can see, that at nearly twice the length both vignettes are an example of a brief moment in time. Neither lasted more than a few minutes, but both express what the focal point of the vignette was thinking and going through.
The key to a vignette is keeping it focused on a specific moment, drawing emotion from that moment and keeping it short. How short? Of course, there is variability, however, a range of 200-300 words is a great place to start. If you find yourself over 300 words you may want to consider editing down with a little creative writing and word choice. Eliminate the redundancies, unneeded words and anything that will respect a reader’s time.