"What is a Vignette?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers


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"What is a Vignette?" Transcript (English & Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Kristin Griffin, Oregon State Creative Writing Senior Lecturer

28 August 2023

If you’ve ever been to a natural history museum, you’ll know that a big part of the experience are the dioramas. From one gallery to the next you might happen upon a herd of zebras milling around a watering hole in the African bush, or a pack of wolves frozen mid-hunt in the snowy Siberian woods. These dioramas—these highly detailed, thoughtfully composed moments in time—are vignettes.

Another place you’re likely to find a vignette or two? Wes Anderson movies. There’s a great example in ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,’ where we’re shown a cross section of the research vessel Belafonte where much of the movie takes place. The camera pans across different levels of the boat and we see various characters going about their business in real-time: the chef icing a cake in the kitchen, the female lead taking notes in the library, the male lead fishing from the bridge. The sequence doesn’t move the plot forward—it’s not active in that way—but it’s beautiful to watch and enhances the sensory experience of the film.

These two examples—the natural history museum diorama, the Belafonte sequence—show us a lot about what a vignette is and its purpose in storytelling. In literary terms, a vignette is a short, descriptive passage that captures a moment in time. It can enhance a mood, develop a character, or describe a setting, but one thing a vignette doesn’t do is move along a plot. It’s no accident that the term vignette comes from a French word meaning “little vine,” referencing the vine-like illustrations that decorated the margins of old books.
Vignettes can differ from, say, a flashback (which we explored in another literary terms video recorded by someone you might recognize) because flashbacks are solely about taking a reader into the past, whereas vignettes can occur anytime.
Vignettes also differ from anecdotes in that anecdotes, while short too, are complete stories with a beginning, middle, and end whereas the most you’ll ever get from a vignette is a glimpse.

You’ll notice that vignettes are everywhere once you know what to look for. One of my favorite examples is Sandra Cisneros’ book The House on Mango Street. It’s a novel-length work composed of a series of non-linear vignettes that consider common themes, familiar characters, and recognizable settings. Here’s a vignette I love from early on in the book. Page six. It’s called ‘Hairs’:
“Everybody in our family has different hair. My papa’s hair is like a broom, all up in the air. And me, my hair is lazy. It never obeys barrettes or bands. Carlos’ hair is thick and straight. He doesn’t need to comb it. Nenny’s hair is slippery – slides out of your hand. And Kiki, who is youngest, has hair like fur.
But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.”

This vignette does so much work to characterize the family as a unit and as individuals. Things come to Carlos. Nenny is exasperating. Little Kiki is soft and young. The speaker’s hair has a mind of its own. A little lazy, perhaps, a little disobedient. The narrator doesn’t seem sure. That makes sense, because the overarching movement of the book is around her coming to understand herself. And then there’s that beautiful, lush, almost stream-of-consciousness passage about her mother where the short sentences in the first paragraph break open into something looser. Her mother’s hair is “like little rosettes,” the speaker says. “Like little candy circles.” Sweetness and delight. The center of the family with a paragraph all to herself.
Remember, a little earlier in this video, when I said that vignettes can enhance a mood, develop a character, or describe a setting? It’s clear in the vignette I just discussed that it develops characters, but does it reveal aspects of mood or setting too? What do you think? Let me know in the comments section of the video.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Griffin, Kristin. "What is a Vignette?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 28 Aug. 2023, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-vignette-oregon-state-guide-literary-terms. Accessed [insert date].

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms