How I Use Vignettes to Jumpstart Students’ Narrative Writing

Often young writers aren’t ready to jump into a full story.

In the first months of school, we are getting to know students and determining their reading and writing skills. To assist in these endeavors, we often assign personal narratives at the start of the year.

I have found, however, that having students dive right into a full narrative is tricky. On one end of the spectrum, there are avid writers who produce twenty page novellas. On the other end, reluctant writers can be daunted by all that goes into fleshing out an entire story.

This is why I like to start with vignettes instead. The dictionary definition of a vignette is “a brief, evocative description, account, or episode.” It is not the same as flash fiction in that it does not need to contain a clear plot. The goal of a vignette is to take a reader fully into a single moment. This can be done in prose or poetry form. It’s about creating the mood and is an awesome exercise in descriptive writing. There are many examples of vignettes in literary works. I also have students write a short explanation of what they learned from the moment to encourage more self-reflection.

An example of a vignette from my classroom.

In my classes we start the year by writing a series of 2–3 vignettes and putting them together in a small book. Year after year, students say that this writing assignment was one of their favorites. I hope it becomes a favorite in your classroom as well. Below are the steps I take to help students write inspiring vignettes.

STEP 1: Activate Memories

Students must first decide on moments worthy of writing about. One way to help them recall important memories is using a visualization activity. I also like to use short mentor texts and film clips to focus on different types of memories. For example, we read the excerpt from To Kill a Mockingbird when Scout gets in trouble for shaming Walter Cunningham, and then students list times they got in trouble as a kid. Or we watch the scene from The Sandlot when Squints puts the moves on Wendy Peffercorn, and then we list our childhood crushes. I try to focus on positive, fun memories, being mindful that some students have experienced traumatic events they may not be prepared to share.

STEP 2: Write With Them

Once we have a list of possible moments to write about, I have students choose one and focus in on the sensory details of the moment. They have to take us there. What were they seeing, hearing, smelling, etc in that moment? I choose a moment too and write with them. I do this to demystify the process of writing (even adults don’t write perfectly on the first try) and help them better get to know me. 

Another example of a revised vignette.

STEP 3: Revise for Brevity & Description

Vignettes are meant to be short, so as we move into the revision phase, these words from Thomas Jefferson become our mantra: “The most valuable of all talents is never using two words when one will do.” Students work together to cut any words or sentences that don’t clearly describe the scene or help create the mood. I use my own writing and let students revise it to gain their trust. If I’m trusting them to hear my thoughts and help improve my writing, I hope they will trust me to do the same.

Have you used vignette writing in your classroom? We’d love to hear about your experiences in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, what is narrative writing and how do I teach it?

Posted by Megan Panek

I am a secondary Language Arts teacher and instructional coach. I currently teach and coach at a career and technical center in Virginia, and I believe in CTE with all my heart. I consider myself a life-long learner and am always looking to improve my craft.

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