A vignette follows the basic form of the structured short story except that it is confined to one impressionistic scene or event. Most flashers are vignettes. Edgar Allen Poe, who wrote both forms of story, defined a short story as having all elements strictly combine to form "a unique and single effect". That describes a vignette. A one scene, one act story where the exterior and interior elements combine to produce a single focused dramatic effect.
You could care about this if you're submitting to a publisher who is looking for stories of a restricted length, as most vignettes will be under 2000. Writing a vignette will mean that you'll be writing something like a prose poem, with a limited budget of words, character arc and narrative arc. A lot of what is being said will be buried under the surface or off stage, the way Ernest Hemingway does in his vignettes “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and “Hills Like White Elephants”. The pacing will usually be immediate, moment by moment, without sub plots or jumps in narration. If you try to do the pacing differently, you'll be working in a form closer to traditional fairy tales, which are usually plotted stories dwarfed into little bonsai trees with broad pacing and very thin character development ("The princess languished in the high tower for ten years. One fine day, a handsome prince was riding by and glimpsed the princess waving to him from a window in the tower.")
A well crafted vignette can pack the emotional wallop of a gunshot to the face if it is based on a strong image or a unique premise. My two personal favorites are Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" and Chuck Palahniuk’s "Guts", both of which I plan to reverse engineer here some day in a future entry. "Masque" is a strong image story that begins with broad pacing which very quickly narrows down to the minute by minute events of a single evening. It has essentially only one character of substance, Prince Prospero, surrounded by a nameless crowd and eventually a red figure with no speaking lines. It is a masterpiece of description and atmosphere. It perfectly achieves Poe's ideal of a "unique and single effect". "Guts" has a unique premise it presents through a single narrator, telling a series of short vignettes, ending in a vignette of his own experience. “Guts” is one of the most notorious short stories ever written, known for causing audience members to faint in horror during public readings – even when read aloud in foreign translation. You can read either story in the time it takes to drink a Tall Latte at Starbucks. In the case of Guts, you may not be able to finish your latte for other reasons. “Guts” is a masterful example of pacing and description also. The descriptions are sparse, reported as dryly as Hemingway and yet you’ll soon find yourself cringing.
You can read “Guts” for free courtesy of Chuck Palahniuk at his web site:
For an example of a vignette, I will also volunteer my own poor stuff, because that is the easiest for me to access. Here is an example of a vignette I wrote from the ERWA Treasure Chest called "Fidelis":
1. Time and Place
The first scene should draw the reader into the action. It introduces the Deciding Character, reveals his governing characteristic, provides a panoramic view of the situation, eventually unpacks the causative event and presents the first obstacle or attempt by the deciding character to respond to this event. That first obstacle usually marks the end of the set up and the first act.
For example, try this exercise.
Imagine standing inside of an old barn. Look at the barn, and describe the barn. Now describe the barn from the point of view of an older man or woman who has just walked in. That's the deciding character. Now - have the character describe the barn during a passionate sexual experience - that is a causative situation interacting with a governing characteristic, depending on how they feel about sex. Voluntary? Rape? Describe the barn from the view of walking in after the deciding character has received the news minutes ago, that a son or daughter has just been killed. Sex. Death. Same barn. Very different view.
One of my all time favorite hookers is the beginning of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea", that old thing they shoved down your throat in high school. The first sentence goes:
"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish."
Now that dry little sentence is one hard working hooker. Break it down. In stark sweeping lines like a Zen ink and brush painting he has given you the deciding character ("He was an old man) with a governing characteristic (who fished alone in a skiff) a panoramic view ("in the Gulf Stream) and a problem and a desire ("he had gone eighty four days now without taking a fish.").
Here's the beginning of Vladimir Nabokov's “Lolita”, my favorite novel of all time:
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-Lee-Ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
I defy you to read that and not want to know what happens next.
he middle act begins immediately after the causative event that ends the action of the first act, and the deciding character has been set into motion with a specific desire or a specific problem to overcome. And there must be one, whether it's a vignette or a plotted story. Hear me. A desire. Or a problem. Or even better - both. By the end of the first act of a plotted story the reader must know what the deciding character is after and why. I've seen so many stories up for crits in ERWA's storytime that had an interesting premise but the deciding character was weak either because he/she wasn't up against something or he/she was passive, acted upon instead of acting. The deciding character doesn't have to be the narrator, the deciding character doesn’t even have to be likable but the deciding character is the one who drives the narrative arc forward starting from the causative event. I come from the old school of pulp fiction, along with many of my literary heroes. With Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard the story always came first, and it had to come at you two fisted and fast. The hero/heroine had to definitely be after something in a manner that kept you turning pages. Whatever genre you write in, if the deciding character is passive or unmotivated, that story will fall flat.
Coming to Death or "Would you like cheese on that McGuffin”?
The middle act will usually begin by the deciding character trying to achieve the object of desire. Alfred Hitchcock had a generic word for this thing, a "McGuffin". A McGuffin is whatever the deciding character is chasing after. It could be his kidnapped wife and daughter, a briefcase with nuclear codes, a piece of ass, true love or just a little peace and quiet, but the McGuffin has to be there somewhere and someone has to be chasing it. The middle act is about the McGuffin and the changes that are occurring to the deciding character and the people around him, including the villain, in their mutual pursuit of the McGuffin, whatever that is. The obstacles and the scenes ideally should build in a rising crescendo of tension with increasing difficulties with the last obstacle leading into a very special moment. Romance formula writers call this "The Come to Realize" or "Black Period". Adventure and thriller writers often call it the "Coming to Death" (no jokes please). It's that moment when everything is lost. No hope. Kaput. Honked. The two lovers hate each other's guts beyond words. The hero is fatally wounded. The McGuffin is beyond any hope of reach. It's all failed and gone to shit. That's when act three begins.
For an example of a plotted story I would like to offer "The Lady and the Unicorn", again from the ERWA Treasure Chest. This is a fairly long story that captures all the elements I have just described:
The Interior Elements of structure
As the Irish say, if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.
Or as my Aunt Myrtle used to say when I was a little kid and told her my big plans –
“Well bless your heart, dear.”
Till then, bless your heart too.