Definition and Examples of Vignettes in Prose

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (Simon & Schuster, 2001). (Kohei Hara/Getty Images)

In composition, a vignette is a verbal sketch—a brief essay or story or any carefully crafted short work of prose. Sometimes called a slice of life.

A vignette may be either fiction or nonfiction, either a piece that's complete in itself or one part of a larger work.

In their book Studying Children in Context (1998), M. Elizabeth Graue and Daniel J. Walsh characterize vignettes as "crystallizations that are developed for retelling." Vignettes, they say, "put ideas in concrete context, allowing us to see how abstract notions play out in lived experience."  

The term vignette (adapted from a word in Middle French meaning "vine") referred originally to a decorative design used in books and manuscripts. The term gained its literary sense in the late 19th century.

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Examples of Vignettes

Examples and Observations

  • Composing Vignettes
    - "There are no hard-and-fast guidelines for writing a vignette, though some may prescribe that the content should contain sufficient descriptive detail, analytic commentary, critical or evaluative perspectives, and so forth. But literary writing is a creative enterprise, and the vignette offers the researcher an opportunity to venture away from traditional scholarly discourse and into evocative prose that remains firmly rooted in the data but is not a slave to it."
    (Matthew B. Miles, A. Michael Huberman, and Johnny Saldana, Qualitative Data Analysis: A Methods Sourcebook, 3rd ed. Sage, 2014)
    - "If one is writing a vignette about a dearly beloved Volkswagen, one will probably play down the general characteristics which it shares with all VW's and focus instead on its peculiarities—the way it coughs on cold mornings, the time it climbed an icy hill when all the other cars had stalled, etc."
    (Noretta Koertge, "Rational Reconstructions." Essays in Memory of Imre Lakatos, ed. by Robert S. Cohen et al. Springer, 1976)
  • E.B. White's Vignettes
    "[In his early 'casuals' for The New Yorker magazine] E.B. White focused on an unobserved tableau or vignette: a janitor polishing a fireplug with liquid from a Gordon's Gin bottle, an unemployed man idling on the street, an old drunk on the subway, noises of New York City, a fantasy drawn from elements observed from an apartment window. As he wrote to his brother Stanley, these were 'the small things of the day,' 'the trivial matters of the heart,' 'the inconsequential but near things of this living,' the 'little capsule[s] of truth' continually important as the subtext of White's writing.
    "The 'faint squeak of mortality' he listened for sounded particularly in the casuals in which White used himself as a central character. The persona varies from piece to piece, but usually the first-person narrator is someone struggling with embarrassment or confusion over trivial events."
    (Robert L. Root, Jr., E.B. White: The Emergence of an Essayist. University of Iowa Press, 1999)
  • An E.B. White Vignette on Railroads
    "The strong streak of insanity in railroads, which accounts for a child's instinctive feeling for them and for a man's unashamed devotion to them, is congenital; there seems to be no reason to fear that any disturbing improvement in the railroads' condition will set in. Lying at peace but awake in a Pullman berth all one hot night recently, we followed with dreamy satisfaction the familiar symphony of the cars—the diner departing (furioso) at midnight, the long, fever-laden silences between runs, the timeless gossip of rail and wheel during the runs, the crescendos and diminuendos, the piffling poop-pooping of the diesel's horn. For the most part, railroading is unchanged from our childhood. The water in which one washes one's face at morn is still without any real wetness, the little ladder leading to the upper is still the symbol of the tremendous adventure of the night, the green clothes hammock still sways with the curves, and there is still no foolproof place to store one's trousers.
    "Our journey really began several days earlier, at the ticket window of a small station in the country, when the agent showed signs of cracking under the paperwork. 'It's hard to believe,' he said, 'that after all these years I still got to write the word "Providence" in here every time I make out one of these things. Now, there's no possible conceivable way you could make this journey without going through Providence, yet the Company wants the word written in here just the same. O.K., here she goes!' He gravely wrote 'Providence' in the proper space, and we experienced anew the reassurance that rail travel is unchanged and unchanging, and that it suits our temperament perfectly—a dash of lunacy, a sense of detachment, not much speed, and no altitude whatsoever."
    (E.B. White, "Railroads." The Second Tree From the Corner. Harper & Row, 1954)
  • Two Vignettes by Annie Dillard: The Return of Winter and Playing Football
    - "It snowed and it cleared and I kicked and pounded the snow. I roamed the darkening snowy neighborhood, oblivious. I bit and crumbled on my tongue the sweet, metallic worms of ice that had formed in rows on my mittens. I took a mitten off to fetch some wool strands from my mouth. Deeper the blue shadows grew on the sidewalk snow, and longer; the blue shadows joined and spread upward from the streets like rising water. I walked wordless and unseeing, dumb and sunk in my skull, until—what was that?
    "The streetlights had come on—yellow, bing—and the new light woke me like noise. I surfaced once again and saw: it was winter now, winter again. The air had grown blue dark; the skies were shrinking; the streetlights had come on; and I was here outside in the dimming day's snow, alive."
    - "Some boys taught me to play football. This was fine sport. You thought up a new strategy for every play and whispered it to the others. You went out for a pass, fooling everyone. Best, you got to throw yourself mightily at someone’s running legs. Either you brought him down or you hit the ground flat out on your chin, with your arms empty before you. It was all or nothing. If you hesitated in fear, you would miss and get hurt: you would take a hard fall while the kid got away. But if you flung yourself wholeheartedly at the back of his knees—if you gathered and joined body and soul and pointed them diving fearlessly—then you likely wouldn’t get hurt, and you’d stop the ball. Your fate, and your team’s score, depended on your concentration and courage. Nothing girls did could compare with it."
    (Annie Dillard, An American Childhood. Harper & Row, 1987)
  • A Hemingway Vignette on a Matador's Death
    "Maera lay still, his head on his arms, his face in the sand. He felt warm and sticky from the bleeding. Each time he felt the horn coming. Sometimes the bull only bumped him with his head. Once the horn went all the way through him and he felt it go into the sand. Some one had the bull by the tail. They were swearing at him and flopping the cape in his face. Then the bull was gone. Some men picked Maera up and started to run with him toward the barriers through the gate out the passageway around under the grandstand to the infirmary. They laid Maera down on a cot and one of the men went out for the doctor. The others stood around. The doctor came running from the corral where he had been sewing up picador horses. He had to stop and wash his hands. There was a great shouting going on in the grandstand overhead. Maera felt everything getting larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. Then it got larger and larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. Then everything commenced to run faster and faster as when they speed up a cinematograph film. Then he was dead."
    (Ernest Hemingway, Chapter 14 of In Our Time. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925)​

Pronunciation: vin-YET

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Vignettes in Prose." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Definition and Examples of Vignettes in Prose. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Vignettes in Prose." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).