The word vignette comes from the French “vigne,” meaning “little vine.” This relates to the historical illustration of textual documents, some of which included small vines drawn along the pages’ edges. The vines represent one small part of the page as the vignette represents one part of the story.
Definition and Explanation of Vignette
Vignettes are not stand-alone works. They exist within long stories, novels, films, and even some long poems. They are short scenes that capture something important in a single moment. There might be something a vignette reveals about a character or idea important for the rest of the poem. Vignettes are usually descriptive in nature and are understandable only in the context of the broader story they’re a part of.
Why Do Writers Use Vignettes?
Writers use vignettes to provide an artistic moment away from the main action of the story. These moments in film/literature are usually purposefully creative and are meant to be enjoyed as much for their aesthetics as they are for the information they provide. They can help the reader learn more about a character, a place, or an idea while at the same time, the writer can increase the atmosphere in the novel.
Examples of Vignettes in Literature
Example #1 The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
The House on Mango Street, published in 1984, is also a classic of Chicano literature. It is one of the best literary examples of a vignette. This is since the entire novel is made up of vignettes. Each one stands alone as a chapter. The story follows Esperanza Cordero, a young Chicana girl in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago, and is based loosely on the author’s own experiences. There are in total forty-four vignettes in the novel. Some are a few pages long, while others just a paragraph or two. They are all narrated in the first-person perspective.
Example #2 Ulysses by James Joyce
In Ulysses, readers can find examples of vignettes in Episode 10. Joyce takes the reader onto Dublin’s streets, where he depicts the various people walking from place to place. The majority of these short descriptions feel mundane, but together they paint a picture of what Dublin was like at that moment. For example, these sentences from the section:
Mrs M’Guinness, stately, silverhaired, bowed to Father Conmee from the farther footpath along which she smiled. And Father Conmee smiled and saluted. How did she do?
This is just one of the short vignettes from this section of the novel. Some of the characters that Joyce mentions are major and some minor.
Example #3 Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney
Heaney is best-known for his poems that tap into his Irish heritage and the Irish people’s broader history. In this piece, he’s looking back on his youth and recalling the moments in which he picked fresh blackberries. The memory in the poem, as well as the life of the blackberries, are both fleeting. Here are a few lines from the poem:
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
Here, he uses vibrant imagery to depict what it was like to gather the berries. This allows the reader to experience these lines as a powerful memory truly.
Vignettes in Film
There are numerous movies where filmmakers choose to use a vignette to reveal something about a character or a moment. These might take the form of a brief flashback or even a flash-forward. As in literature, the vignette might be a bonus to the main content of the novel/story, or it might be more crucial to understanding a character’s intentions. There are examples in films like:
- “Short Cuts”
- “Paris, je t’aime”
The second of these examples is a film composed of eighteen vignettes directed by different people.
Some related words include portrait, depiction, sketch, portrayal, illustration, and outline.
Related Literary Terms
- Characterization—a literary device used to detail and explained the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Dialogue—a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
- Exposition—the important background information that a writer includes in a story.
- Flashback—a plot device in a book, film, story, or poem in which the readers learn about the past.
- Imagery—the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Watch: Writing Vignettes
- Watch: What is a Vignette?
- Read: What is a Vignette, and How Do I Write One?