REVIEW: The Art of the Vingette

Tom Russell milos_parker at
Wed Jul 4 12:51:40 PDT 2007

A good vingette is hard to write, and the form is often overlooked in
favour of its longer, plot-based cousin.  I think this stems from the
fact that a badly-written plot-based story is generally more enjoyable
than a badly-written vingette, if only because even the worst plot-
based story still has, well, a plot; plot being the thing that,
ideally, a vingette by its very definition lacks.

But that doesn't mean a vingette lacks structure; the best vingettes
are marvels of economy and construction that best exemplify Strunk's
rule that, just as a machine has no unneccessary parts and a drawing
no unneccessary lines, a sentence has no unneccessary words.  Every
word counts, every gesture tells.

And one of the best vingettes I've come across in a long time is the
first issue of LADY LAWFUL AND DOCTOR DEVELOPER (April 2007), by
Andrew Burton.  At first glance, it's just a conversation between the
two characters-- a superheroine and a "quasi-reformed supervillain"--
a form that vingettes often take.  But Burton does not fall for the
two common mistakes of "two characters talking vingettes".

One common mistake is to have the characters talking about nothing at
all-- or, worse, talking about pop culture (shudder).  Generally, when
writers are faced with the challenge of a "plotless" story, of
capturing a moment, they go for the most mundane thing possible-- and
generally, the end result is boring and pointless, usually telling us
nothing about the characters.

The other extreme (and the second common mistake) is to have the
characters talking about something big and huge.  This is extremely
popular among "serious" students in high school creative writing
classes-- the big revelation, for example, that Josie cheated on Sam
or that Sam has AIDS.  Really, all this is is a plotted story with the
first two acts lopped off.  It usually feels unfinished and, to be
blunt, more than a little "emo".

The perfect balance, then, is to have the characters talk about
something that's mundane enough to qualify as "plotless" and yet
different enough to be interesting.  Or, to put it better, to have the
characters talk about something that is indicative of the characters.

Doctor Developer hates going to the Uberstore with Lady Lawful because
every time he sees the swing sets, he think of ways to use them to
create death traps.  This is a memorable detail, and also remarkable
because it reveals--

1) that he feels guilt/embarrassment at the whole deathtrap thing
(especially in light of his romantic relationship)
2) that he's turned on by it (there's a sexual subtext to the
3) that he's obsessive (creating an entire CD-rom full of trap designs
solely from swing sets)

-- within the space of a few lines of dialogue and a couple of
narrative asides.  This also comes out of a structural device-- L.L.
asking him to tell her something about himself.  This structural
device comes back when he asks her to do the same.  But rather than
simply have her say some random thing, Burton ties it back to Doctor
Developer's revelation:

>      "I'm not sure if this counts, but okay."  She looks away, but not before
> I can see a slight blush in her cheeks.  "I've been thinking, since mom and
> dad moved, and I've got an entire house now, I should really start acting
> like a homeowner.  Fix it up a bit, you know."
>      "What did you have in mind?"
>      She turns back to look at me.  The twinkle in her eye is still there,
> but there's something else about her look.  I had seen that look before.
> "Just normal homey stuff.  Maybe a swing in the back yard.  What do you
> think?"
>      What do I think?  I think I'm an as much a bad influence on Jenny as she
> is a good influence on me.

Which reveals, in its way, that she's as into it as he is.  It's a
nice glimpse not only into their relationship, but also into her
personality.  She does not hit him with a "fact" but rather an
invitation-- and thus what she says is, in its own way, more
revelatory than his answer.

It's also a nice "pip", or twist, or zinger, or whatever you crazy
kids call it these days.  It gives the structure an ending and
contains within it a shifting sense of sexiness, humour, and, in a
strange way, domestic bliss.  What more can one ask for in less than a
hundred lines?

The key here is that Andrew not only understands his characters, but
also structure-- and that you really need to have a firm grasp of both
in order to pull off the vingette form.  More-so, perhaps, than in a
plot-based story-- for here the plot must appear to not be a plot, the
structure must appear to not be a structure.

And with this issue, on the whole, he succeeds in taming this most
elusive of forms.


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