So you want to write a Vignette?

By David Flin


So, you want to write a vignette … As you may be aware, this site hosts a vignette writing challenge every month. There is a theme for each challenge, announced at the start of the month, with voting on the submissions at the end of the month. The themes vary widely, and have included Operation Sealion, Gold, Football, and Romantic Love. The current theme is "Luck", which can be found here.

What is a vignette? A vignette is a self-contained story, typically around 1000-2000 words long, encapsulating a snapshot look into a wider world. It should capture a single defining detail about a character, idea, or world view.

It can have many uses: it can help the author visualise an aspect of the greater story they have in mind; it can help clarify a vision of a character or an aspect of the world; it can test reader response to see if something is likely to be popular or not; it can be used by the writer to experiment with a different style; it can be an excuse for an extended joke.

Many authors write little vignettes for characters to help them get a better understanding of the character. These exercises involve simply putting a character into an unusual situation, and writing how that character reacts to that situation. Sometimes these might be vaguely plausible situations, such as how would Margaret Thatcher have been different had she decided that the Labour Party offered her more opportunities than the Conservative Party, and she ended up fighting James Callaghan for leadership of the Labour Party rather than Ted Heath for leadership of the Conservative Party. Sometimes they might be less plausible, such as how would Margaret Thatcher have reacted as Muggle PM in 1986 when the events around the infant Harry Potter started.

Writing a vignette How does one go about writing a vignette? Different people have different ways of writing, but there are a number of things common to pretty much all vignettes.

Firstly, only use a few characters. A vignette is, by definition, short, and the greater the number of characters involved, the less space there is for each of them. A vignette is a snapshot, and needs focus.

Secondly, stick to the detail of the vignette. A vignette is a snapshot, and extraneous detail will cause the picture to blur. The key is to keep the vignette focused.

An example might be in order. Let us say that we’re doing a riff on the train departure scene from Brief Encounter, but set a few years later in a Britain under Nazi occupation. First, we have to decide whether there is a change in emphasis. In the original, it was a friendship between two married people that was developing into a potential romance. Essentially, it’s a story of forbidden love, and whether or not two essentially good people would succumb to the temptation of that forbidden love.

We have to translate that into a Britain under Nazi Occupation; the obvious route would be to make one of the two main characters Jewish, although that might very well be too obvious. If it is to work, the Jewish character has got to be not obviously so, or else the story never gets off the ground. Let’s say we decide to make Alec the Jewish character, and that Laura realises this part-way through their developing relationship. We’re going to concentrate on the final scene, at the railway station. Their attempts at saying goodbye are interrupted by Dolly, who chatters away until Alec has to leave.

Alec leaves, telling Laura he’s got a job elsewhere, and he walks into steam, almost lost from view, and it’s through this haze of steam that Laura sees Alec stop and talk to a man in uniform, before a swirl of steam has them disappear from view.

Depending on how subtle or unsubtle you wish to be, you could either end it there, or you could have Doris tell Laura that she’s had a lucky escape. “That man was Jewish, you know,” with a cutaway to a poster with the words: “Work Makes You Free.”

That’s a fairly simple idea, borrowing a well-known scene, and twisting it round to reveal something about an alternate world. One can dot the vignette with little details, images to subtly shift the background to show a different picture to that expected.

It’s worth remembering that a vignette needs to be very pared down. It’s a snapshot, and 1000-2000 words is a very short space. Keep everything pared down, and make every word earn its place. Remember that you’re trying principally to create an atmosphere or a mood rather than a story. Avoid introducing backstory or exposition. These aren’t needed.

Make use of Kipling’s Six Serving Men. They are the bedrock of journalism, and they’re essential to get clear in your own mind what you need to cover in a vignette.

I keep six honest serving-men, They taught me all I knew; Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.

Ask yourself these questions. Who are the characters? What are they doing? Where’s it all happening? Jot down what the answers are, and you may very quickly see what the essential element of the vignette is. Once you’ve got the essentials, you can focus on what is important.

A worked example In a recent vignette challenge, on Romantic Love, I decided to test the waters to see if there was interest in a possible third series of a timeline I’ve been writing, Tales from Section D (set in the world of Six East End Boys). This has been a spy thriller series, and the last that was seen was that the Head of the Section, Megan, had married Colin from the Section. I decided that were I to do a third series, I would set it a few years after the second.

I had an idea for the start, which I decided to use in Till Death Do Us Part to see what response it drew.

Henry pulled on his coat, getting ready for his first day at school. “Mummy, what was Daddy like?” he asked.

Megan flinched. She’d dreaded the question, but she knew it would come. She just wished it hadn’t come today. She was already emotional about Henry starting school, and this reminder, it was just so hard. “He was a very kind and honest man. He would be very proud to see how big you’ve grown.”

In those two paragraphs, I’ve indicated that time (around five years) has passed, and that Colin was no longer around. The vignette goes on to describe Megan still coming to terms with the loss of Colin, some two years previously.

I then develop a meeting with what appears to be a potential love interest, fulfilling the theme of Romantic Love, and then at the end, I provide the twist, the hook that would introduce the start of the series it was introducing.

The feedback from the vignette would then give me an idea as to whether or not there was interest for the next series.

Method of writing Don’t think too hard about it. A vignette is about the atmosphere and getting a feel of the scene. It’s a snapshot, not a forensic examination. Just write without worrying about anything other than the atmosphere and the single scene you’re trying to convey.

Ideally, a vignette should be written in a single sitting. A break from writing means that you’ve broken into the atmosphere that you’re trying to create. Just let the vignette flow.

Once you’ve written it, then it’s time to prune it back. If it’s relevant to the atmosphere and the vignette, it stays. If it isn’t, then cut it out. Once you’ve trimmed all the fat from the piece, you’re ready.

Just remember, the two hardest parts of writing are starting and finishing. Too often, potential writers are concerned about getting all the research done before they start. Research is important, but there is always more research that can be done, and at some stage, the writing has to start.

The second difficult part of writing is finishing. It’s all too easy to constantly improve and change and modify a piece, aiming for perfection. Rewrite follows rewrite, with hours spent over choosing between which of two words is best in a certain phrase. Some quite good authors leave their first thoughts in place, and the piece is all the better for it.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

You don’t take arms against a sea. You take arms against an enemy host. If rewritten, that last line would probably read:

Or to take arms against a host of troubles.

That would keep the logic of the peace. But sea works better in the context. Shakespeare was trying to convey the feeling of being overwhelmed, swamped, drowned by troubles and cares, and sea conveys that better than host does.

It’s very easy to get lost in the minutiae, and lose sight of the bigger picture. Some potential writers simply cannot stop fiddling with a piece. There comes a point when it needs to see the light of day.

And this is where vignettes come into their own. They’re short, they’re supposed to be trial pieces, they’re supposed to go for feel rather than intricate plot, they’re perfect for trying out a little idea and seeing what happens.

So, you want to write a vignette?

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