ABCs of Flash Writing: V is for Vignette

Posted by on May 9, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: V is for Vignette

One word: beauty. And that word, over and over again, in variegated iterations, is what makes a vignette.

Why a vignette and not a piece of flash fiction?

Just roll the two terms around in your mouth and see the difference. The second is swilled quickly, the first is something you savour.

If “flash fiction” indicates brevity, “vignette” indicates beauty. Can they be used interchangeably? I have my doubts. Flash fiction demands narrative – the classic three-part structure, resolution. The vignette demands something more. Teachers say that vignettes are impressionistic, capturing moments with imagery, and this has come to be a sort of standard definition to tell the form apart from similar ones. But that’s technical, whereas creativity is intuitive. And my intuition, the reason why I am drawn to one word over the other, just as I am while engaged in creating any piece of writing, is this: the latter word is a diminutive, but it’s the one with greater depth.

Over and over, as writers of short stories we’re told that our work will rarely move beyond journals and into book form. Some of the terms we use to describe our work internalise this sense of diminishment. “Sudden fiction” sounds accidental, nonchalant. “Micro-narrative” sounds, well, disappointing, less than what it could be. And “flash fiction”? Sorry, but to me it sounds like an exercise at best, a way to produce under pressure, a “3 minutes or 300 words, whichever comes first” response to a prompt, handed in before the bell rings.

“Fragment” is almost as pretty, but only if a brokenness and a sense of elision are part of what you wish to convey.

But you will prefer the term that suits the stories you tell, and how you prefer to tell them. And that’s as it should be, because within that scope for variation, within that need for a thesaurus, is where some of the secret lies.

Because, really, “vignette” is just such a beautiful word. It stands to reason, and appeals to sentiment, that a vignette should therefore also be in a love affair with language. Every vignette is a prose-poem. The form very elegantly straddles the two: imagine the way a ballerina would swing her leg over a boundary wall and balance her weight on it, a lissom limb in either field, carrying the instinctive vernacular of her body into even this simple act. In much of the ancient world, verse was the first written literary form. A vignette brings that natural prosody to prose.

As I write this, I’ve just finished looking at the proofs for my book of short stories, The High Priestess Never Marries (HarperCollins India, 2016) for the first time. Of the 26 pieces it contains, more than half are vignettes. Vignette – from the French word for ‘little vine’, arabesque embellishments used in chapter headings by 19th century printers, to add beautiful imagery to the page. I’m not saying my writing is beautiful; but I am saying that that is what it aspires to be: and it begins, first of all, with a more evocative name.

Sharanya Manivannan is the author of four books, including the award-winning short story collection The High Priestess Never Marries. Twitter: @ranyamanivannan