Vignette (literature)
AuthorsErnest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, Alice Walker, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, William S. Burroughs, Tim O'Brien (author)
Related genres
Sketch story, Short Story, Flash Fiction, Drabble, Slice of Life
Related topics
Literature, Novel, Poetry

A vignette (/vɪnˈjɛt/ , also /vnˈ-/) is a French loanword expressing a short and descriptive piece of writing that captures a brief period in time.[1][2] Vignettes are more focused on vivid imagery and meaning rather than plot.[3] Vignettes can be stand-alone, but they are more commonly part of a larger narrative, such as vignettes found in novels or collections of short stories.[2]

Examples of vignettes include Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time, Margaret Atwood’s The Female Body, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, and Alice Walker’s The Flowers.

Vignettes have been particularly influential in the development of the contemporary notions of a scene as shown in postmodern theater, film and television, where less emphasis is placed on adhering to the conventions of traditional structure and story development.[4]


The word vignette means "little vine" in French, and was derived from Old French vigne, meaning “vineyard”.[1] In English, the word was first documented in 1751, and was given the definition “decorative design".[1] This definition refers to decorative artwork of vine-leaves and tendrils used to embellish title pages and the commencement of chapters.[3] In 1853, the word was used to describe a popular 19th century photographic style, where portraits had blurred edges.[1] The definition of a vignette referring to a “literary sketch” was first recorded in 1880.[1] The idea of the "literary sketch" was derived from the sketch in visual arts - a rough or unfinished drawing or painting, showing the main elements of an artwork.[5] This reflects the characteristics of a vignette; brief and spontaneous, with a sense of immediacy.[6]


An example of a vignette used as a decorative artwork

In the 19th century, vignettes were found in newspapers and acted as brief and vivid descriptions of the news article’s subject, from the perspective of the writer.[7] According to Norman Sims (2007), these vignette sketches “provided writers with something we often miss today: the opportunity to write about ordinary life.”[7] These 19th century vignettes frequently offered few facts which could be verified, and tended to blend journalism with fiction.[7] These vignette sketches provided writers with a sense of imaginative freedom, and reflected the larger Victorian movement of integrating real life and art.[8] By blending fact and fiction, journalists could use their writing to explore their uncertainties and speculations about the subject.[7]

During the 19th century, vignettes were written by anonymous authors, and attributed to the newspaper or journal they featured in.[7] They were reused for new audiences and were therefore being constantly revised and re-contextualised.[7]

An example of a vignette photograph, with blurred and darkened edges

Later in the 19th century, vignettes in newspapers declined in use and popularity.[7] This was due to journalism becoming more realistic and fact based.[7] The decline of vignettes also reflected a broader shift in society towards scientific theories and realism.[9] Journalism and literature separated into different, distinct branches of writing, until literary journalism emerged in the late 19th century.[7]

The Streets, Morning, illustration by George Cruikshank for Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens

Aside from journalism, vignettes in the form of the “literary sketch” became popularised in the Victorian era by authors such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, and their works would often appear in newspapers and magazines.[6] Works such as Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens, and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: Pen and Pencil Sketches of English Society, drew heavily from the original definition of a sketch in the visual arts by creating a sense of spontaneity, freedom and authenticity.[6] These sketches sometimes included visual illustrations by George Cruikshank, and were viewed as rough drafts rather than complete works of literature - a necessary step towards creating a finished work, but not inferior to a finished work.[6] The fragmentary and immediate style of these vignettes reflected the 19th century’s sense of economic and social instability, and the rapid pace of urban life.[6]

Dickens’ sketches often described brief and immediate scenes of everyday life.[6] The sketches represented a smaller part of a larger story and conveyed themes relevant to the Victorian Era such as social class, work and money.[6] The use of common themes across different vignettes provides each story with an additional dimension of depth.[10]

Due to the rise of post-modern and experimental literature after World War 2, attributes of vignettes resurfaced in popularity. Post-modern literature rejects the conventional “novel” structure and notions of a chronological plot and character development.[11] Techniques in postmodern literature such as minimalistic, “slice of life” stories and fragmentation became popular, which are also key characteristics of vignettes.[11] Vignettes also emerged in other forms of media such as postmodern theatre, which does not adhere to a fixed structure, style or genre.[4]


Vignettes are written in a brief, concise style. They are rich in imagery to create a vivid, detailed description of a moment in time and a character’s immediate experiences.[3]

While short stories and flash fiction are complete works that follow a narrative structure of beginning, middle and end, vignettes do not follow this traditional narrative structure.[12] A vignette contains less action and plot structure than flash fiction, and instead focuses on vividly capturing a single scene or a brief slice-of life moment in a character's experience.[2] Vignettes are short and tend to be under 1,000 words in length.[12] A vignette contains less action and drama than flash fiction, and places more emphasis on vividly capturing a single moment.[2]

As vignettes are often brief and do not allow for elaborate plot or character development, many writers craft vignettes to be part of a larger story or idea. For example, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street is the length of a novel but is a collection of individual vignettes.[3] Each vignette explores common themes, motifs and characters that contribute to an overall plot.[3] In Ernest Hemingway’s collection of short stories In Our Time, individual vignettes integrate into an overarching narrative rather than acting as brief, isolated descriptions.[13] Charles Dickens’ collection of vignette sketches Sketches by Boz, although not contributing to a broader plot, explore common themes relevant to the Victorian era such as social class, adding a sense of depth and continuity.[6]

Vignettes also appear in other creative forms such as web series, television shows, and films. For example, the web series High Maintenance uses vignettes to explore the lives of a different set of characters in each episode.[14] This series uses the vignette style to vividly portray themes of the human condition, such as boredom and loneliness.[15] Movies and television shows also use vignettes to reveal more details about the inner world and past lives of characters.[12] The Netflix series Orange is the New Black uses flashbacks that act as vignettes to explore each character’s past in more vivid detail.[12] The 2018 Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is composed of six short films that act as vignettes.[16] In the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, director Rob Reiner weaves the fictional plotline with real-life vignettes of elderly, married couples telling the stories of how they met.[17]

Vignettes are also used in psychological research (see also: Vignette (psychology)).[18] In research, vignettes act as short descriptions about a hypothetical situation, to which survey participants respond with their perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, and how they would react to the given situation.[19] The wording of these vignette scenarios are experimentally controlled by the researcher, and different versions of the vignette may be randomly assigned to different participants.[20] These vignettes may be based on previous research findings, or based on real-life examples.[19] A potential limitation of using vignettes in psychological research is that individuals may respond differently to these fictional scenarios than their real-life response.[19] Vignettes can also be used to provide a fictional example of a psychological concept.[19] Vignettes have primarily been used by North American psychologists and in surveys.[19]

Writers of vignettes

Writers of vignettes include Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Ernest Hemingway, Sandra Cisneros, William S. Burroughs, and Tim O'Brien.

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, 2015

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer whose works explore gender and identity.[21] Written as a series of seven short vignettes, Margaret Atwood’s The Female Body shows how perceptions of the female body differ between men and women. Only four pages in length, this series of vignettes highlights how the female body may be objectified.[12]

Alice Walker

Alice Walker is an American writer whose works are known for their insight into African-American culture.[21] Alice Walker’s two-page vignette The Flowers depicts a young African-American girl discovering the body of a lynched man while walking in the woods.[22] This vignette provides an insight into themes of racial violence and slavery, as well as commenting on the loss of childhood innocence and the coming of age.[22]

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time

Ernest Hemingway is noted for his novels and short stories, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.[21] In Our Time is Hemingway’s collection of short stories. The collection features untitled vignettes, which are fragmented yet integrated into an overarching narrative. The vignettes act as critical aspects of the overall stories rather than inconsequential descriptions.[13] The writing style of In Our Time consists of succinct, declarative sentences characteristic of the Modernist period.[23] In Our Time explores World War 1 and its aftermath, depicting themes such as masculinity, adaptation, maturity and responsibility.[23]

Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros is a Latina American writer, known for her bestselling novel The House on Mango Street.[21] Written as a non-linear and fragmented collection of vignettes,[24] The House on Mango Street explores Latin-American identity through the eyes of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago.[3][25]The House on Mango Street is a novel-length work consisting of individual vignettes that frame an underlying story.[25] The vignettes in this novel contain succinct and readable phrases. They are written in a poetic style, containing imagery and metaphors, experimenting with rhythm and rhyme.[3] The House on Mango Street explores themes such as coming of age, identity, class, gender, innocence, family and friendship.[3]

William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs was an American writer known for his experimental novels that provide insight into themes of sexuality and drug addiction.[21] His works were part of the Beat Movement.[21] His experimental novel, Naked Lunch, is structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes. Burroughs himself stated that the vignettes have "“no real plot, no beginning, no end,"[26] and that the vignettes can be read in any order: "Start anyplace you want. Start in the middle and read your way out. In short, start anywhere."[27] Naked Lunch explores themes of drug use, homosexuality, violence, and paranoia.[26] Due to its fragmented and non-linear narrative structure, Naked Lunch may be difficult to follow, and Meagan Wilson (2012) describes it as "a labyrinth of incoherent narrative fragments."[27] The novel's publisher, Olympia Press, referred to the novel as "the great secret novel of the Beat Generation", and the novel gained a strong underground following.[27]

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an American novelist whose works depict American experiences of the Vietnam War.[21] His collection of short stories The Things They Carried contains related vignettes that describe sentimental objects that soldiers took with them to the war in Vietnam.[28] As well as objects, the vignettes depict emotions the soldiers experienced during the war, such as terror and homesickness.[28] The Things They Carried blurs the lines between fact and fiction as the first-person narrator has the same name as the author (Tim O'Brien).[29] Each vignette explores themes such as loss, displacement, memory, trauma, and the nature of truth.[30][31] O'Brien's writing style in The Things They Carried is informal, colloquial, and straightforward.[32] Some stories are told in first person from the perspective of protagonist Tim, while others are told in a more detached third person omniscient point of view.[33]

See also


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  2. ^ a b c d Akinci, Ugur (2012). How to Write a Vignette.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "The House on Mango Street Writing Style". Retrieved 2016-04-18.
  4. ^ a b "Postmodern theatre - The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2020-11-02.
  5. ^ "Definition of sketch |". Retrieved 2020-11-16.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h BYERLY, ALISON (1999). "Effortless Art: The Sketch in Nineteenth-Century Painting and Literature". Criticism. 41 (3): 349–364. ISSN 0011-1589. JSTOR 23124216.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Cordell, Ryan (2019). Classifying Vignettes, Modeling Hybridity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  8. ^ PAULY, THOMAS H. (1975). "The Literary Sketch in Nineteenth-Century America". Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 17 (2): 489–503. ISSN 0040-4691. JSTOR 40754392.
  9. ^ Gershon, Livia (2019-08-06). "The Invention of Journalistic Objectivity". JSTOR Daily. Retrieved 2020-11-02.
  10. ^ ""Defining the Vignette" in "Classifying Vignettes, Modeling Hybridity" on Manifold @uminnpress". Manifold @uminnpress. Retrieved 2021-06-03.
  11. ^ a b Mambrol, Nasrullah (2019-03-21). "Postmodern Novels and Novelists". Literary Theory and Criticism. Retrieved 2020-11-02.
  12. ^ a b c d e "What Is a Vignette In Literature?". MasterClass. 2020.
  13. ^ a b Brogan, Jacqueline Vaught (1998-03-22). "Hemingway's 'In Our Time': A Cubist Anatomy". The Hemingway Review. 17 (2): 31. ISSN 0276-3362.
  14. ^ "High Maintenance". Retrieved 2020-11-02.
  15. ^ "How to Stop Feeling Lonely, According to the Creators of 'High Maintenance'". Retrieved 2020-11-02.
  16. ^ Dani Di Placido. "The Six 'Ballad of Buster Scruggs' Shorts, Ranked". Forbes. Retrieved 2020-11-20.
  17. ^ When Harry Met Sally... (1989) - IMDb, retrieved 2020-11-18
  18. ^ What issues should I consider when writing vignettes?.
  19. ^ a b c d e Hughes, Rhidian (1998). "Considering the Vignette Technique and its Application to a Study of Drug Injecting and HIV Risk and Safer Behaviour". Sociology of Health & Illness. 20 (3): 381–400. doi:10.1111/1467-9566.00107. ISSN 1467-9566.
  20. ^ Encyclopedia of survey research methods. Lavrakas, Paul J. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications. 2008. ISBN 978-1-4522-6147-8. OCLC 233969508.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)
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  22. ^ a b Armstrong, John (2016-11-23). "Gothic Matters of De-Composition: The Pastoral Dead in Contemporary American Fiction". Text Matters. 6 (6): 127–143. doi:10.1515/texmat-2016-0008. hdl:11089/20464. ISSN 2084-574X.
  23. ^ a b "In Our Time: Overall Analysis | SparkNotes". Retrieved 2020-11-16.
  24. ^ "Vignette - Examples and Definition of Vignette". Literary Devices. 2015-03-13. Retrieved 2021-06-03.
  25. ^ a b Rivera, Haydee (2003-01-01). "Breaking the Rules: Innovation and Narrative Strategies in Sandra Cisneros' the House on Mango Street and Ana Castillo's the Mixquiahuala Letters". Ethnic Studies Review. 26 (1): 108–120. doi:10.1525/esr.2003.26.1.108.
  26. ^ a b Schjeldahl, Peter (27 January 2014). "The Extraordinary Life of William S. Burroughs". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2020-11-16.
  27. ^ a b c Wilson, Meagan (2012). "Your Reputation Precedes You: A Reception Study of Naked Lunch". Journal of Modern Literature. 35 (2): 98–125. doi:10.2979/jmodelite.35.2.98. ISSN 0022-281X. JSTOR 10.2979/jmodelite.35.2.98. S2CID 161916878.
  28. ^ a b "Tim O'Brien | Biography, Books, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2020-11-16.
  29. ^ VERNON, ALEX (2003). "Salvation, Storytelling, and Pilgrimage in Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"". Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal. 36 (4): 171–188. ISSN 0027-1276. JSTOR 44030002.
  30. ^ Chen, Tina (1998). ""Unraveling the Deeper Meaning": Exile and the Embodied Poetics of Displacement in Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"". Contemporary Literature. 39 (1): 77–98. doi:10.2307/1208922. ISSN 0010-7484. JSTOR 1208922.
  31. ^ Silbergleid, Robin (2009). "Making Things Present: Tim O'Brien's Autobiographical Metafiction". Contemporary Literature. 50 (1): 129–155. doi:10.1353/cli.0.0051. ISSN 0010-7484. JSTOR 20616415. S2CID 161666885.
  32. ^ "The Things They Carried: Style | SparkNotes". Retrieved 2020-11-18.
  33. ^ "The Things They Carried: Point of View | SparkNotes". Retrieved 2020-11-18.

Further reading