Vignette examples don’t only come from the classics like Hugo or Hemingway. They can also be found across television and film.
That’s why we’ve got a few examples from each.
But that’s also why vignettes are tricky to grasp — they don’t follow hard and fast rules.
They do, however, follow general guidelines, and are:
- Purposeful yet plotless
- Detailed yet brief
- Evocative yet tangible
So if you’d like to learn more about what vignettes are, how they differ from other literary devices, or how to incorporate them into your creative writing, the following examples are for you.
Let’s jump in!
What Is a Vignette?
A vignette is a literary device that creates a vivid but plotless description around a scene or character.
How long exactly?
Well, 800-1000 words are considered the limit, though there’s no official guideline for length.
That’s because vignettes are a puzzle piece, not the whole puzzle. Vignettes give you a glimpse of the story to come, or put the reader in a certain mood before the story.
That’s also why vignettes can’t stand alone.
As the name implies, the word “vignette” comes from a Middle French word for small vines, and they’re little offshoots from the main piece of writing.
Vignettes are best seen in action, so let’s get to the examples!
Vignette Examples to Get Your Literary Senses Tingling
We’ll first look at three examples from literature and then three examples from television and film.
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
“In the presence of these lights, he proceeded like a man who is intoxicated. As he walked thus with haggard eyes, did he have a distinct perception of what might result to him from his adventure at [Bishop Myriel’s]?…
Did a voice whisper in his ear that he had just passed the solemn hour of his destiny; that there no longer remained a middle course for him; that if he were not henceforth the best of men, he would be the worst; that it behooved him now, so to speak, to mount higher than the Bishop, or fall lower than the convict; that if he wished to become good he must become an angel; that if he wished to remain evil, he must become a monster?”
— Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo’s vignette captured Jean Valjean’s confrontation with grace.
Since grace and forgiveness are subjective experiences, Hugo used imagery, evocative language and powerful analogies to drive his creative writing forwards.
First, he used visual and auditory descriptors. An “intoxicated” and “haggard” soul was seen. A whisper was heard.
Then, after the senses were evoked, dramatic analogies were given of bishops and convicts, angels and monsters.
As a result, Valjean’s inner conversion was shared.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Ten minutes for seven letters. With another ten could she have gotten “Dearly” too?
She had not thought to ask him and it bothered her still that it might have been possible-that for twenty minutes, a half hour, say, she could have had the whole thing, every word she heard the preacher say at the funeral (and all there was to say, surely) engraved on her baby’s headstone: Dearly Beloved.
But what she got, settled for, was the one word that mattered. She thought it would be enough, rutting among the headstones with the engraver, his young son looking on, the anger in his face so old; the appetite in it quite new. That should certainly be enough. Enough to answer one more preacher, one more abolitionist and a town full of disgust.”
— Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s vignette example introduced a mood around a scene of a mother and her murdered child.
The mood was one of regret and hopelessness — regret for the life Sethe, a runaway slave, could never give her child. She couldn’t even give her a properly engraved headstone.
Phrases like “bothered her still,” “could have,” and “settled for” land heavy.
What’s more, the future looked just as hopeless, seen through the old anger renewed in the eyes of the engraver’s son.
As a result, an atmosphere takes form around this tragic scene.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, Ernest Hemingway
“It was late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the café knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.”
— Ernest Hemingway
This vignette example creates a setting with its imagery.
Later in this short story, Ernest Hemingway tells us the significance of a well-lit café by comparing it to a dimly-lit bar. “He disliked bars and bodegas,” we’re told of the waiter who mirrored the old man’s disposition. “A clean well-lighted café was a very different thing.”
Though an average drunk may belong in a seedy bar, this man was of a different ilk. He belonged in the well-lit café.
And it set the stage for the short story.
But since dramatic and emotive language was relatively absent, Hemingway relied on sensory descriptors to show this.
Thus, the café glowed in electric light. The dew-settled street was calm. And the quiet environment could be felt, even if deaf.
The atmosphere takes shape and leads to the rest of the short story.
The Best Examples of Vignettes in Films & Series
Vignettes in television and film are similar to vignettes in prose, except they’re literally seen and heard.
Although the guidelines still apply, vignettes in films and series can serve double duty. They’re often paired with flashbacks, montages, or cold opens, like the following example.
The Office, The Banker
The Office included many “cold opens” (a short scene before the starting credits) as short vignettes.
And the episode The Banker (S6.E14) was a perfect vignette example.
In the short scene, Jim Halpert came in nonchalantly and sat down dressed as his office mate, Dwight Schrute.
Jim’s hair was parted like Dwight’s, he wore clothes and glasses like Dwight’s, he pulled out a bobblehead like Dwight’s, and then he proceeded to ask Dwight-style questions, impersonating Dwight.
It took a minute, but once Dwight caught on, he wasn’t happy. Then, to keep the impersonation rolling, the scene cut as Jim preemptively called to his boss, “Michael!” To which Dwight copied and followed.
Clearly, the vignette is meant to be comedic, but it also gives the audience a glimpse into the Jim-Dwight relationship.
Jim sets the traps. Dwight falls for them.
And the audience isn’t told — they’re shown — what type of relationship the two had.
Derry Girls, Finale
The finale (S3. E7) of Derry Girls, a comedic series set against the backdrop of the Northern Ireland Conflict, began with a group of short vignettes.
The vignette was a bundle of disjointed scenes. It began as Orla McCool danced through the streets. Her cousin Erin read a Shakespeare novel in a bookshop and finally whispered, “That’s so beautiful.” But come to find, she traded Hamlet in for a Teen Bulletin magazine. And James Maguire, alone at school, paused his video editing on a closeup of Erin, his crush.
The purpose of the bundled vignettes was to portray how each character was doing after a year, now adults at 18. And, likely, how they would be doing once the series ended.
It leaves you wondering, with all these changes, would they change too?
Office Space, Printer Scene
Office Space is a satirical comedy about office work in the late ’90s. The protagonist, Peter, along with his two friends, Michael and Samir, hated their jobs.
But they especially hated the printer.
It rarely worked. So finally, after another printing failure, the trio took the device out into an abandoned field with a baseball bat. After a rigorous beating, they abandoned the shattered printer.
This amusing vignette gave the audience a glimpse into how fed up Peter and his friends were.
Fed up with their meaningless jobs.
Fed up with life.
As it turned out, that destruction of company property was just the beginning.
How to Paint A Picture With Your Words
Now you’ve seen what they look like, here are a few pointers to get you started on writing your own vignettes:
- No set structure or plot: The vignette is both stylistically creative and free from narrative structure.
- Use lots of description: Vignettes depend on metaphors, analogies, and other descriptive language.
- Evoke sensations and feelings: A vignette should leave the reader with a certain feeling, mood, or sensation.
- Keep it brief: Remember, a vignette should be no longer than 800-1000 words. However, multiple vignettes can be used and/or bundled together.
- Focus on a purpose: A vignette is meant to give a specific glimpse or insight into the larger story.
These Vignette Examples Are Just The Beginning
Vignettes create that depth most writers long for.
But, as you’ve seen, they aren’t only for the Hemingways of the world — vignettes are everywhere.
This means you can create them, too!
Use your favorite vignette example as inspiration and give this literary device a shot. Work on evoking an expressive mood or an encapsulating atmosphere. Pump it full of description, metaphor, and emotion.
Pretty soon you’ll look back to find those layers of depth you once only dreamed of in your writing.