What Makes for a Great Vignette?

The compressed nature of flash fiction (i.e. anything under 1000 words) means writers must make the most of every word. The vignettes for this class are even more challenging than traditional flash fiction pieces as they’re explicitly referencing a much longer narrative and detailing a complex fictional world. While this world and your campaigns were fascinating, the most compelling vignettes dealt with the thoughts and emotions of your characters. This sheet is intended to help you revise your vignettes with an emphasis on developing your characters further, making them even more complex, compelling, and human.

1.Tight, detailed writing
  • Evokes all five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell)
  • Sharp verbs (few “to be” verbs - is, was, were, are, am, be, been)
  • Active rather than passive constructions (“they ran” is better than “they were running”)
  • Details and imagery (“a burned out shack” is better than “a small building”)
  • Interesting word choices (“stout and irritable” is better than “short and angry”)

2.Focus on a very small moment in time
The most successful vignettes set the scene very quickly, usually in a sentence of two in the first paragraph and then describe a simple, often mundane task such as cooking, eating, or hiding. Trying to squeeze too many events into a vignette ultimately makes it feel flatter and less engaging.

3.Introspection rather than reportage
Many vignettes read as transcriptions of the campaign events and lack a personal connection. In each session, your characters encountered people, places, and things that would likely trigger memories or associations of some kind. These triggers allow the character to speak about her/his past, either in a short phrase (“when I was a farmer”) or in complete scenes happening in flashback.

4.Emotional states in addition to a unique voice
Most of the characters have a unique voice, either through the way they speak or the kinds of things they notice. In addition to the voice, a fully fleshed-out character should also express different emotions based on the triggers described above. For example, an old shoelace might act as a trigger to remind a character about his or her parent. While the first step is to establish how the shoelace triggers the memory, it should also be emotionally charged: do memories of the parent bring back happiness? Anger? Fear? Sadness? Don’t forget that conflicting emotions are also interesting!

5.Reveals something about the character
Fictional characters, like real people, are complex and always evolving. A one-dimensional, or flat, character doesn’t show many emotions and rarely surprises the reader and they become clichés: the hooker with the heart of gold, the heartless villain, the greedy businessman, the corrupt politician, the avenging hero, etc. The best vignettes reveal something unique and interesting about the character; a great vignette can also feature a character learning something about him/herself too.

6. Is a self-contained story and doesn’t rely on other vignettes
A great vignette should be able to stand alone. A little context in the beginning should give enough information so that a reader doesn’t need to click on any links to read earlier episodes to figure out what’s going on; it also shouldn’t end abruptly simply because the author hit the 1000-word limit. Rather, the well-crafted vignette will feel like an isolated moment that tells the reader a world about the character and make them want to read more about the characters because they are complex and interesting, rather than needing to read more about them in order to understand what’s happening


Critique Objectives: For each writing vignette you will be assigned to post critiques of two other students' work. You will be required to give thoughtful, critical feedback on each of your group members’ work using the above points as your guide, with the intent of improving the overall quality of their work. This means including both positive comments and explaining how and where you think the work might be improved.

Critique Length and Format: About 250 words, or equivalent to about a page in a double-spaced Word document. Past it to the discussion thread at the bottom of the page. Begin with parts you liked best (evocative words, descriptions, phrases, active verbs, images, etc.)

How to Write a Good Critique: One of the most important skills you can develop in this course is how to provide someone a good critique, followed closely by how to accept critiques of your work with an open mind. Remember that you’re offering your opinion, not a definitive judgment on a piece of creative writing that is still being developed. Rather than saying “that metaphor was awful,” try saying “that metaphor didn’t work for me” or “that metaphor confused me” instead. Focus on the writing, not the writer. Always start with the parts you liked best before moving on to the parts you had problems with.