Introduction: Art of Vignette

From childhood I carried a spiral notebook, writing "sketches" which I thought of as practice for the conventional novels I'd one day author.

A "sketch" was a simple, discrete description. A bookcase with a broken shelf; a kitten playing with shoelaces; people at a bus stop. Snapshots without implication.

Around the turn of the millennium I began to think of them as valuable in themselves. The best were no longer discrete, but implied a wider world. Formally they were products of compression, implying: This looks like a dust mote but is actually an entire universe. It's that suggestion of something larger which excites me.

  • A successful vignette evokes while a sketch doesn't.

  • Vignettes differ from "flash fiction" because, as consensus has evolved, "flash fictions" attempt to be ordinary "stories" with beginnings, middles, and ends. Vignettes, like haikus, can be static, painting a still frame but implying a movie. "Flash fiction" is reactionary because instead of moving forms forward it recreates what's been done since Aristotle. I find that neither interesting nor useful.

  • Vignettes differ from "prose poems" because the latter tend to be florid. I suppose you could write florid vignettes, but if you did they'd just be prose poems and anyway, please don't.

Vignettes are one attempt among others to escape linearity. "Stories" — unidimensional narratives — are exasperating artifacts of print, where forms are determined by modes of distribution. For example the tradition of "character development" exists because pages are expected to turn in one direction. Whole genre evolved to exploit the constraint: picaresque, say, or detective fiction. Digital media break the constraint by enabling multiple dimensions. Textual worlds such as TriadCity or Fallen London enable new kinds of computer-mediated narrative in which "events" can happen in arbitrary sequences — or not at all. In print, Tom Jones will always go to London, will always meet Mrs. Waters along the way, always at the same inn at the same moment in the work's linear time. In TriadCity you may meet Barbecue Dave at any moment, or never, while I may meet him at a different time under different circumstances. Where computer-mediated narratives add dimensions, vignettes reduce the dimensions to zero. A point may exist in four-dimensional space but is under no obligation to say so. Computer-mediated narrative requires computers, vignettes can work in print. They're both trying to escape the prison-house of linearity.

I still write all day, now on my phone rather than a spiral notebook, and seldom sketches. Vignettes are more rewarding. I hope more writers will choose to explore them.