Now that we've cleared up any possible
confusion, I'm pleased to introduce the book's author, David Galef. David is not only a fellow New
Jersey writer and an accomplished author, but also the head of the creative
writing program at Montclair State University, where I teach on and off (at the
moment, I'm "off"). David would argue—and I agree—that much of what
he offers in his new book is equally applicable to narrative nonfiction, as it is to fiction writing. I'm finding it particularly helpful
myself, as I'm revising my first two pieces of fiction—one a medium-length
short story, and the other a piece of flash which, like this introduction, is
crying out for, well, brevity.
Please welcome David Galef
definition, flash fiction is rendered in miniature. But what happens when you
start cutting down on words? What becomes of plot, character development, and
thematic depth? Obviously, some of what you can attain in a longer story is
going to have to go. Forget the long landscape description or the three scenes
showing the grandmother’s slow decay from Parkinson’s. On the other hand, some
treatments are particularly suited for the short run. One well-known form is
vignette started in fifteenth-century printing as a decorative border of vines
around a page, then turned into what the vines enclosed, usually a page with an
illustration. We now think of it as an illustrative scene, a literary sketch.
The French coined a term for this form, calling it tranche de vie
(literally, “slice of life”), and its ingenuity lies in what any cross-section
reveals: the hidden depths of an interior view.
two eight-year-olds playing croquet: those unwieldy mallets, the lawn sloping
unfairly, and one ball headed for the bushes. This vignette, just begun, might
be called “Game.” It shows the seemingly innocent fun had by two small children
on a Sunday afternoon, with more than a hint of pre-tween rivalry. We’ll name
the children Ivan and Sandra and make them neighbors. You can hear the smack of
mallets on the balls along with some conversation about school. But after the
first paragraph, Ivan says something nasty about Sandra’s mother. Sandra
responds not by hitting Ivan’s ball with hers but by kicking it. The “game”
escalates from there.
you can see, “Game” isn’t a story with a proper beginning, middle, and end.
It’s a moving picture that becomes a sketch or scene, suggesting something
beyond. The term “sketch” is all the more apt when you think of visual art, in
which a sketch is the essential lines of a drawing, but not filled in.
are some guidelines for creating a vignette:
Focus on a moment. If you start to
chronicle any substantial duration stop, and instead deepen the presentation of
what’s already there: waiting half an hour for a date to show up, a missed five-minute
opportunity to help a stranger.
only as much as you need to register an impression of either a character or an
event or even a mood. One trait indicates a sunny personality; a distorted
shadow indicates trouble.
Think in psychological terms. Your
sketch has a meaning beyond its mere existence because of what it represents:
an old woman who can’t enjoy a summer afternoon, a boss who won’t take no for
an answer. Here are five pointers
for this kind of treatment:
1. Don’t merely describe. Follow the
2. Do more with less. One short scene from
a day is plenty.
3. Be representative. One small portion can
stand in for a whole life.
4. Go for evocative, concrete details, not
5. If possible, find a way to give shadows
and depth to your sketch. Make it mean more than what it seems on the surface.
you're interested in trying a vignette, Here are a few exercises:
of yesterday as a sequence of events. Then choose a common incident, such as
lunch, an hour at work, or a car ride. Now describe it, animate it, and
dramatize it so that the reader gets a vivid picture of what’s going on, on
both an exterior and an interior level.
instance: With a smile, I serve plate
after plate of the daily special, spaghetti and meatballs, at Abe’s Diner, but
I really hate my job. Or: She hitches
a ride home with a coworker, a man she’d like to ask out, but she hasn’t got
incident did you choose, what did it show, and why was it significant? How much
of the character did you reveal, and in what ways? Did anything change over the
course of the event?
conveying emotion or attitude in miniature. Here are some specific directives:
What slice of life—the more ordinary, the better—would you use to show envy at
the way your parents treat your brother? How good does your friend think she is
at driving versus how inept she really is? Why is that man on the curb
accosting passersby by asking the same question over and over?
your vignette is complete, you’ll know it, or your readers will. From one
angle, it may look like a line segment, a point that travels from A to B. But
viewed as a segment cut from the whole, it’s character dealing with event in a
way that reveals the line as a lot longer, back into the past or into the
future. A good vignette extends far beyond its narrative span; it displays a
David Galef has published flash fiction in Agni, Smokelong
Quarterly, NANO Fiction, Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward, and in his book My Date
with Neanderthal Woman. He is the author of the novels Flesh, Turning
Japanese, and How to Cope with Suburban Stress; edited an
essay anthology, Second Thoughts: A Focus on Rereading; and co-edited the
anthology of fiction, 20 over 40. His essays and reviews have
appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, and The
Village Voice, among other places, and he is a humor columnist
for Inside Higher Ed. Connect with David at his website and via Twitter.