How to Write a Vignette

My origin piece is a poem I wrote in high school for an assignment based on the Allen Ginsberg poem “C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization Eat More Grease.” The goal was to focus on themes of excess, like Ginsberg, so I wrote about makeup in the context of high school and adolescence.

If I’m being honest, it’s a terrible piece of writing. My knowledge of free verse poetry was limited to what we’d covered in class. The structure is a glaring indication that I had no idea what I was doing. The purpose is vague and undefined. Then there’s the fact that the Ginsberg poem I based my poem on was written for spoken word. I cringe at the idea of my poem being read, much less read aloud. Not to mention that it’s riddled with teen angst.










Yeah, it’s not great.

Despite all that, I think there is a salvageable topic among the wreckage here. For my first experiment, I want to write a collection of vignettes about the culture surrounding makeup and beauty. I’ve only attempted to write vignettes once before for an assignment after reading Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, which is the only vignette collection I’ve read. I did what anyone does when they aren’t sure what something is. I typed “vignette” in Google, and my search produced two definitions:

  1. “a brief evocative description, account, or episode.”
  2. “a small illustration or portrait photograph that fades into its background without a definite border”

The word “vignette” is familiar to a lot of people as a tool in Instagram’s photo editing.

The setting blurs the edges to draw the eye to a specific focal point of the image, which is not far from the definition of “vignette” as a literary device or genre. Vignettes are not limited to written word. They can also be used in photography or even in film like in Sam Wright’s 11-vignette comedy, Coffee and Cigarettes. The HGTV website even uses vignette as an interior decorating technique in guide called “8 Tips for Making Beautiful Vignettes.”

For my experiment, I will be focusing on written vignettes like in House on Mango Street, but no matter the medium, all vignettes have a few key qualities:

Vignettes must have a singular focus. defines vignette as a short essay, focusing on a particular moment, mood, setting, or object. In vignette photography, this quality is a literal one, with the focal point of the image being sharp against a blurred background with darkened edges. In written vignettes, like in House on Mango Street, each vignette is focused on one thing, like a particular character, or the house the narrator lives in.

Vignettes can be fiction or nonfiction, but they have to be short. advises that, while there is no hard cut off, a vignette should not be longer than two thousand words. Some of Cisneros’s vignettes are as short as a few hundred words. However …

A vignette is not a short story or flash fiction.

According to Vine Leaves Literary Journal, a vignette is distinct from these genres. Where short story and flash fiction require defined structure and plot, a vignette is more about leaving an impression through “poetic description.”

If part of a collection, it should have a unifying thread.

A collection of vignettes should have a universal theme running through each piece to tie them all together. Each snapshot should somehow relate to the others to create a bigger more complete idea.

Bonus vignette fun facts:

  • The word “vignette” comes from nineteenth-century French writers who drew images of vines on their title pages.
  • The app Vine originates from the word “vignette,” since (if you’re using the definition loosely) Vines are essentially 6-second video vignettes.

Putting it all together:

Here is an excerpt from the vignette “My Name” from Cisneros’s House on Mango Street.

Cleary, the vignette has a singular focus: the narrator’s name. It only goes on for a couple more paragraphs, so it’s short. Cisneros uses poetic descriptions of the narrator’s name, Esperanza, to give an impression of her character. While the unifying thread isn’t necessarily clear from reading this one excerpt, I know from reading the whole collection that two major themes in House on Mango Street are gender and identity, which are woven into this piece.

I think the biggest challenges for me will be breaking away from the framework of plot and structure and being intentional with my details. Exploring my topic through the frame of a vignette will allow me to strip down the topic to a universal theme. Moving forward with these guidelines is at least a step in the right direction of that goal.


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