Every Story Tells a Picture or How to Vignette

By Maryann Henck

Angelia Velosa & Cristo­pher Gomez, Door 95 in the Rua San­ta Maria — The arT of oPEn doORs/Projecto aRTe pORtes abEr­tas, Fun­chal, Madeira; Pho­to cred­it: Maryann Henck

In the age of social media, it’s the image that rules. Insta­gram is the per­fect exam­ple: It not only feeds some people’s insa­tiable need to doc­u­ment and offer glimpses into their pri­vate lives but also caters to a cer­tain audience’s desire to con­sume and expe­ri­ence these slices of life vic­ar­i­ous­ly. Insta­gram refers to the images post­ed as “sto­ries,” a des­ig­na­tion that fits in per­fect­ly with the proverb: Every pic­ture tells a sto­ry. And sto­ries are almost always subject(ed) to inter­pre­ta­tion. In the case of these Insta­gram pic­ture sto­ries, often the only clue is a brief cap­tion or hashtag.

But what if the focus were to be shift­ed and that proverb were to be reversed? 

Then every sto­ry would tell a pic­ture. So instead of telling a sto­ry with a pic­ture, the sto­ry recount­ed would give rise to an image. This is exact­ly the type of alche­my need­ed to cre­ate a vignette – the word many a lit­er­ary crit­ic has used to refer to San­dra Cis­neros’ imagery-infused, con­cise­ly craft­ed, and emo­tion­al­ly evoca­tive pieces in her ‘nov­el,’ The House on Man­go Street. For the author her­self nev­er clas­si­fied this work as a col­lec­tion of vignettes or even a nov­el, pre­fer­ring to view these “lit­tle sto­ries” as “a jar of but­tons, like the mis­matched embroi­dered pil­lows and mono­grammed nap­kins I tugged from the bins at the Good­will” (The House on Man­go Street, xv-xvi).

Yet, some­how the term “vignette” fits in with my per­son­al take on vignettes. The word orig­i­nates from the French and means “lit­tle vines,” refer­ring to illus­tra­tions found along the page bor­ders used to mark begin­nings or ends of chap­ters in 18th cen­tu­ry nov­els. Lat­er on, this tech­nique was used in pho­tog­ra­phy to cre­ate a sub­tly dark­er frame around a pho­to as a way of high­light­ing the cen­tral image. Yet, not until the 19th cen­tu­ry was the term used to describe a lit­er­ary sketch – akin to a slice of life or prose poem – one that did not focus on plot, but instead cre­at­ed a dis­tinct impres­sion of a char­ac­ter, set­ting, or even an object. So, in my view, there is a link between the ver­bal and the visu­al in vignettes as the right words bring an image or images to life sim­i­lar to a pho­to­graph being devel­oped before your eyes in the dark room.

Those who love writ­ing poet­ry and lyrics should have no trou­ble pen­ning a vignette. But if you are the plot-dri­ven type of writer, the vignette might present you with more of a chal­lenge. As an exam­ple, I’d to take my favorite vignette from The House on Man­go Street:

A House of My Own

Not a flat. Not an apart­ment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pil­low, my pret­ty pur­ple petu­nias. My books and my sto­ries. My two shoes wait­ing beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody’s garbage to pick up after.

Only a house qui­et as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem. (The House on Man­go Street, 108)

This lit­tle piece might seem like a sim­ple con­struc­tion, but such con­ci­sion requires revi­sion. So, what are the ingre­di­ents need­ed to cre­ate that alchem­i­cal moment in a vignette of your own? Here are my suggestions:

  • Cap­ture a moment, don’t cre­ate a plot line.

The nar­ra­tor doesn’t focus on telling you how she will find a house of her own, but by describ­ing what it is and what it isn’t.

  • Select a set­ting that reveals some­thing about the character.

The set­ting cries out for soli­tude (“two shoes wait­ing beside the bed”) and beau­ty (“my porch and my pil­low, my pret­ty pur­ple petu­nias”) – the envi­ron­ment the pro­tag­o­nist needs for writing.

  • Like an impres­sion­is­tic paint­ing, use blurred dabs of col­or to cre­ate a char­ac­ter sketch.

The pro­tag­o­nist is clear­ly an inde­pen­dent and eman­ci­pat­ed woman who doesn’t want “a man’s house” or “a daddy’s” or men she needs “to shake a stick at” or whose “garbage” she has to “pick up after.”

  • Use imagery that appeals to the sens­es to turn your sto­ry into a pic­ture – and in Cis­neros’ case – prefer­ably mixed-up sen­so­ry images.

Usu­al­ly a visu­al or hap­tic image of snow is evoked: its white­ness, its soft yet cold tex­ture. Here, how­ev­er, an audi­to­ry image is pro­vid­ed: “a house qui­et as snow.” The phys­i­cal space of the actu­al house as well as the men­tal space for cre­ativ­i­ty demand empti­ness so that they may be filled, “clean as paper before the poem.”

  • As in a poem, rhythm is key – vary sen­tence struc­ture and use fragments:

This piece is com­posed sole­ly of frag­ments, imbu­ing it with its own unique rhythm.

Curi­ous about try­ing your hand at a vignette now? These are just the “how-to-vignette” guide­lines. For the “why-to-vignette” guide­lines, take a peek at “We Need a Break or We’ll Break.”


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