When my writings turn exploratory or freewheeling, my favorite story structure is the vignette. Unhindered by ongoing plot bloat, naturally disposed to changes in tempo and pacing, the vignette is a neat little tool for when you want to write a varied, shifting story featuring a pantheon of characters and their different perspectives. Every input and outcome are possible, there’s no guarantee what happens next: Vignettes, and how to write them.
For a basic common ground, vignettes are, oft, shorter encapsulated stories shown in successive installments each focusing on an individual character or small, localized cast and the lives and conflicts therein. Basically, bind a bunch of short stories together with a shared theme or setting. If you’re able to write a short story, you should be able to do so many times in a row. Just keep a voice in the back of your head that repeats “overarching purpose” every so often to maintain cohesion.
If you’re trying out a vignette for the first time I suggest you keep a shared setting throughout your story. With the setting as the common thread you’re free to write a wider array of stories utilizing different tones and themes. One story can be about the career/homelife strain felt by an open to close restaurateur and the next can be about the escapism from routine boredom felt by a group of students who go to the restaurant for lunch every day. Maybe after learning of the restauranteur’s stress and work ethic we ironically drop in on the students talking about how tedious it is for their parents to talk about paying attention in school when the guy cooking for them seems to be doing well for himself (oblivious of his education and the business diploma in his office). With a shared setting small details can enrich the other stories as subtle details provide new experiences and interpretations on the reread. Like how a ship in a pirate or sci-fi story can inhabit so much of the page that it becomes its own character, if you carry a single setting through a vignetted story, be it a restaurant, town, school, hospital, bootcamp, etc., we see how that place effects the people who inhabit them in unique ways.
On the headier side is using theme as the glue to the various vignettes. Such a technique requires more tact and forethought in its implementation. Themes are far less resilient to changes in tone than a setting and can be prone to mishandling. Unless you reveal the restaurant at the core of the story’s focus is actually a pocket dimension of an orphan’s imagination, it’ll be a restaurant from start to finish. You can’t, by contrast, pose that one man’s plenty isn’t another man’s deprivation and then reject or, more often, ignore that proposition in subsequent vignettes. On a relative scale of sweaty story prep to total winging it, thematic vignettes are slightly closer to the former. To form a cohesive narrative, each vignette should explore and develop the theme from different perspectives.
For instance, the pain of losing family. Easily one piece could cover a child’s driftlessness after losing a parent and the next could show a completely different character adrift after losing a child. We see both completely separated characters joined by their similar circumstances. Further, there can be a child losing a parent and then in the next vignette we see how a parent who lived that circumstance acts around their child as if we’re seeing the child from the first vignette matured, impacted by their terrible experience. You can jump between cultures, continents, centuries, classes, etc. Show how this experience shapes people and thus the people around them. Vary the setting and characters to show that all peoples can experience this, that it is universal. You can also show how that experience can be different for different people. A yeoman’s eldest son might have to take up the mantel of his deceased father, working the fields and taking command of the house. A modern-day rich kid who can maintain the same standard of living on their mother’s salary might have to contend with the emotional emptiness of their lost parent and find a sense of bleak comradery with the children of divorce in their school.
Narrowing in on vignettes, I wrote a story with them of which I’ve shared a piece here. It was a great experience in writing where I became more comfortable with worldbuilding, scene establishment, secondary characters, physical descriptions, and pacing. When you only have a short story’s worth of time to introduce a character and send them on their way it presents a challenge. The reader won’t have the same length of time to build up an image of the character so I had to bite my cheek and give brief, interesting, image-provoking physical characteristics of almost every focus character. It feels like an exercise of the fundamentals with each new chapter taking me out of my comfort zone. Sometimes you need that. Constraints are fun when you’re able to push against them and see them bend.
To this end, I inadvertently made a vignetting technique/rule-set I call the baton pass (which I’m sure someone developed before me and I just haven’t heard about them yet). Much like the name suggests, the baton pass is a handoff between focus characters across the vignettes thus linking each chapter to the next. One focus character will meet the next focus character in the first chapter and the next focus character will lead chapter two and meet the focus character for chapter three. As a personal rule (i.e., break only in rare circumstances), each focus character must have at least one interaction with the next to prevent picking a random head in the crowd as a cheat. How’s the reader supposed to guess they were meant to be the next focus character? It could be a hello, a thank you, a short stare, or a debate over the nature of man. All are valid. Additionally, the subsequent vignettes must take place after one another to preserve the link. That’s it for constraints. From there you have to get creative.
One of my best uses was to make the baton pass in the middle of one chapter and spread the focus character’s limelight over two partial chapters. It varies up the pacing of how long each character has in the spotlight and when they’ll leave it. Additionally, it’s pretty obvious when the focus character only interacts with one other character that they’ll be the next focus character. It’s likewise obvious when a single secondary character stands out amongst the rest that they’ll be chosen next by the hand of the author. Thus, I had to work on my secondary character game to flesh them out to the point where the reader would have to guess who’s the next focus character.
At heart this vignetted story let me explore how everyday interactions and how you carry yourself can impact the lives of other people if only in a small way. With every vignette compounding on the next I understood with great acuteness cause and effect. In many ways the first chapter, despite the difference between the characters and circumstances there, had a sizeable impact on the final chapter. If I’d written it a little different then my freewheeling would have taken the story to a far different end. Then again, I can just do so next time and I’m all for that.