What is a vignette? The term has the potential to be confusing because it means slightly different depending on which story-telling medium is the topic of discussion. Even within filmmaking, the term can also be used to describe two completely different things. We will sort through this confusion and break down each meaning of ‘vignette.’ We will also take a look at some vignette writing examples in literature and film. Learning this specific writing technique might be exactly what your next project needs.
What is a Vignette
Let’s define vignette
The vignette is one of many literary devices that relies on context. We will be focusing primarily on the definition of vignette as it relates to storytelling. But first, let’s quickly take a look at the other meaning of vignette.
In photography, filmmaking, and illustration, vignette refers to the darkening or, less commonly, the lightening of an image’s edges. Vignetting an image can provide it with additional contrast, value, and heighten the viewer’s focus on the center of the image.
If you encounter any other unfamiliar terms, our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology is a handy resource for looking them up. Now let’s dig into the other meanings and variations of this concept.
Vignette Literary Definition
What is a vignette?
In literature, a vignette is a short piece of writing that does not have a beginning, middle, and end but rather focuses on a specific moment in time and the details within it.
In film, a vignette is a scene in a movie that can stand on its own. For example, the orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally is often viewed and referenced on its own, separated from the rest of the film.
Vignettes do not tell complete stories on their own. They exist within broader stories, and multiple vignettes can add up to a cohesive whole. A vignette film is a complete cinematic work comprised of multiple episodes that can either weave together or remain separate throughout the course of the film.
- Non-complete stories
It is important to distinguish a vignette film from an anthology film. An anthology film is made up of individual stories that are complete on their own. Each segment in an anthology film has a protagonist, a conflict, and a beginning, middle, and end.
Whereas in a vignette film, the individual segments are not complete on their own, but rather small pieces of an ultimate whole.
Films like Creepshow or Twilight Zone: The Movie are anthology films, not vignette films since their individual stories are self-contained and each follows a full plot arc.
What is a Vignette in Writing
How vignettes are used in storytelling
A vignette in literature differs from a vignette in film. In traditional literature, a vignette is kept very short, typically under 1,000 words, and describes an isolated moment outside the passage of time. In a literary vignette, textures, emotions, and senses are described, but the plot does not move forward.
However, in a cinematic vignette, time is always passing, the plot may or may not advance, and the internal sensations of the character are not externalized, except in extremely rare instances of poetic visualization.
We will be focusing on how this device works in cinema moving forward. However, if you would like more information on how writers use them in literature, you can refer to the following video.
A work of fiction can be built entirely out of vignettes, becoming a vignette film. Alternatively, one or more vignettes can be placed within an otherwise traditionally told narrative, such as in the aforementioned When Harry Met Sally scene or in many of Quentin Tarantino’s best films.
The KKK raid sequence in Django Unchained is a pivotal moment in the story. But the comedic “bag” scene that interrupts it is a perfect example of a humorous vignette. For more on this film, check out our analysis of the Django Unchained screenplay.
Both of these example scenes are diversions from the narrative. But they are so funny that we, as audience members, do not care that the plot has been momentarily paused.
Writing a Vignette
What to write a vignette about
Most, but not all, vignette films share a few distinctive characteristics. First, they must have multiple plot threads. Whereas a traditional plot may follow a simple A-to-B trajectory, a vignette film is comprised of multiple narratives that each progress forward.
These separate plot threads may overlap, and the characters from one story may find themselves in another.
But this kind of crossover is optional, not mandatory.
These films are typically stocked with many characters of great or minor significance. While having a huge cast is not a requirement for a vignette film, having multiple protagonists is. Each vignette must have a distinct protagonist to follow, at least in part.
More often than not, these films are less plot-heavy than traditionally structured films. Slow, talky, and slice-of-life are all descriptors that are usually appropriate when describing a vignette film. Although some vignette films do opt for a more ‘active’ narrative style.
A segmented nature will be found in all vignette films. Jumping from story to story creates natural divisions in the narrative. Thus turning the plot into a series of connected segments rather than the singular through-line you might find in a traditionally structured film.
Each segment within a vignette film tends to be on the shorter side, but some films go against the grain in this regard.
One segment can be played through in its entirety before moving on to the next vignette. Or the film can jump from story to story, making a little progress on each plot thread with each segment before reaching an overall finale.
VIGNETTE WRITING EXAMPLES
Examples of vignette films
Now, let’s take a look at some examples of successful vignette films. This format offers a chance at collaboration for filmmakers to team up and deliver an overall vision while also injecting their own signature flair.
One vignette film that brought together the powerful directing team of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell is 1995’s Four Rooms.
One more example of a vignette story serving a collaboration between directors is Paris, je t’aime. This star-studded affair is comprised of 18 vignettes, each directed by a different filmmaker with such notable names in the mix as Alfonso Cuaron, Wes Craven, and the Coen Brothers.
Now, let’s take a look at some vignette film examples from directors with singular visions over multiple storylines.
Short Cuts from director Robert Altman is one of the finest examples of a vignette film. The script is adapted from the stories of Raymond Carver and explores a massive cast of 22 main characters all living in Los Angeles in the same moment in time. Each storyline is uniquely dramatic, and the subtle narrative overlaps serve to make the world feel vibrant and real.
Auteur filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson tackled the vignette film format in his third feature-film: Magnolia. The film is epic in scope while remaining deeply humanistic at its core, treating each and every character in the large cast with serious emotional depth.
The script is tightly woven, and the overlap between the characters of different stories is immensely satisfying when their connections finally come to light.
Another vignette film that is similar to Magnolia in many ways is the Oscar-winning drama Crash. Though Crash may be more high-profile, it is far less successful in crafting a cohesive vignette narrative with emotional resonance and staying power.
Wayne Wang’s Smoke is a great example of a laid-back, low-key vignette film. The movie centers around a cigar shop and the Brooklyn neighborhood surrounding it. As customers enter the shop, we learn about their personal stories and follow their dramatic potential.
Jim Jarmusch is a filmmaker who has had great fun playing around with narrative structure over the years. His film Coffee and Cigarettes is built around 11 vignettes with only one thing in common: they are all set in coffee shops with different characters drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
The various segments within Coffee and Cigarettes were filmed over the course of 17 years. In fact, the first segment was filmed in 1986, and the final feature film not being released until 2003.
Before releasing the full film, Jim Jarmusch released pieces of the film as a trilogy of short films called Coffee and Cigarettes I, II, and III between 1986 and 1993. And one additional perk of working in this format: isolated pieces can take on a new meaning when combined to form a whole.
What is Subtext?
We now have a comprehensive definition of vignette and plenty of examples to round out our understanding. Now it’s a good time to further our understanding of another literary device that pays dividends when used properly in a screenplay. Up next, let’s discuss subtext — what it is, and how to incorporate it into a story.