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Vignette VS Story: The Apocalyptic Arc

One of the most frequent critiques I make of the work of my writing students is that they're not writing stories, they're writing vignettes. There's nothing really wrong with a good vignette, of course - we depend on them here on RedRoom, and in blogs and other forms of daily or occasional journalism - but it isn't a self-sufficient form in the way a good strong short story is. Vignette depends on a certain continuity, a context to bear it up and make it more than the sum of its parts. That's why (or one of the reasons why) a blog entry that succeeds powerfully in its home environment of on-going commentary won't be finding its way into the pages of Paris Review anytime soon.

(I won't enter into the realm of fiction versus creative nonfiction - which is what I suppose blog entries are, although many of the best ones seem to me to be entirely, or almost entirely, fiction - here.)

When I make this critique, my students often ask me for a definition of story, so that they can tell - at least according to my lights - when they're story-ing, and when they're vignette-ing. That's a fair request. I thought I'd lay out here in fairly brief fashion of few of my thoughts on what distinguishes one form from the other. It's a structural matter, of course, but also a matter of spirit, of feeling.

One of the reasons I wanted to codify the difference was to prevent myself, as much as possible, from falling into this pattern, which is an easy one to indulge. Vignettes had a real vogue for a while back in the late 80s and early 90s, when poor imitators of Ray Carver and Ann Beattie et al. thought that was what Carver and Beattie were writing, when what they were really doing was writing quiet apocalypses. So quiet that, to an unsubtle reading, the explosion (or more often, implosion) in the fiction wasn't readily apparent.

Here's the difference as I see it: in a vignette, nothing much changes. The world does not shift on its axis. Intriguing, sometimes fascinating, things take place, but without a larger context, there's relatively little resonance.

A story, on the other hand, involves apocalypse. I'm pretty specific by what I mean by the use of that word: I mean a revelation (the literal meaning of the word apocalypse; a "lifting of the veil"), and a very specific type of revelation: the destruction of an old order, followed by a time (however brief, even a moment, a flicker) of disorder and chaos, and the replacement of the old order by a new and entirely different order (though that new order may in its external details greatly resemble the old).

This is, as has been correctly pointed out to me, really just a variation of the conflict-crisis-resolution formula of "Freytag's Triangle," which is no doubt familiar to anyone who has ever taken a creative writing or literature class. The difference, to my mind, is that F's T is useful primarily for criticism of literature - we can look at a piece of work and ask ourselves, Does this follow the storytelling pattern? - whereas I find the notion of the apocalyptic arc useful even as I create. I worry sometimes that the notion of rising tension and climax inherent in the Triangle can make young writers (and old writers too) leery of starting out their work ambitiously, because where in the world do you go from there?

It seems to ask us to trump ourselves on every page, tightening the screw again and again, until the work explodes. And so the temptation is to start out very quiet - Do you have a tissue, Margaret? the old man asked his spinster sister in a querulous tone - so that it's not hard to increase the conflict and tension. Get you own tissue, Brooks, she replied. My God, rising tension. Brooks sneezed into his hand. Climax! Crisis! I have read way too many stories that start out and proceed thus, in what I take to be an effort to satisfy the Triangle and make its accomplishment tenable.

The novels are even worse, because the writer feels that long slope of rising tension stretching out in front. What a climb! And so we start with a weather report: It had been a dreary November, and it looked like it was going to be a dreary December as well. And even January wasn't looking so good, though maybe it would start to get better in February and March. Easy to increase tension and conflict from that low point.

With apocalypse, the new doesn't have to be bigger, tighter, more tense, louder, just new. That's a different, and to me less intimidating, challenge.

Genre apocalyptic fiction simply makes this pattern of revelation - destruction, chaos, establishment of the new - explicit, which is one of the reasons I like it. Nothing hidden; it just lays it all out there, human nature and the nature of the world, raw and bloody and terrible to look at, but revealed for all to see, because it is set in such stark relief against the background of a changed world.

And it's almost impossible to look away, isn't it? Like a car wreck, and that is, in one sense, precisely what a car wreck is: an apocalypse according to this model, if a very personal one. We are in the old order, the order that tells us that we are in control, we are in forward motion, we are making progress toward the goal that we have no doubt we will reach, as we have always reached it before. Then the implosion, the shattered glass, the violence and blood, chaos: do we live? Do we die? And if we live, we emerge into a world that is changed, for us if not for others, in every way, for all time.

Cancer, as I can tell you from personal experience, has precisely the same effect. You can all name those revelations that have come upon you throughout your lives. They stack and they stack and they stack. The world is different, and we are different; and sometimes those changes are in harmony, and sometimes they are in direct conflict, and sometimes they just rub and rub and rub, like tectonic plates shuddering away against each other way down deep in the earth.

Most of the fiction I admire for more than its momentary effect on me works this way, if not in the explicit text, then in the subtext. The world as we know it (as the protagonist knows it) vanishes; we exist for a time in the whirlwind; we emerge into the new order, and either we belong to the new world and are willing/able to exist in it, or we find ourselves excluded from what has been established.

Frequently, in vignette, chaos ensues, yes. And vignette can often be quite a spectacle, which makes us think that it's a story, because the volume gets turned up so high, and it's so much fun to watch. But then nothing new is established, no one experiences revelation, no new order comes about.

The new order is a big deal for real story, though it may be an order that leaves the protagonist out in the cold.

Many of you probably know that the novel version of Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange that's familiar to us, and that ends with Little Alex having been restored to free will and ready to resume his terrorizing ways, is neither the Clockwork Orange that Burgess wrote nor the one that he intended for us to see. But it's the one that was published in America, and it's the one that Stanley Kubrick made into his spectacular film.

In Burgess' preferred version, there is a final chapter, a kind of coda or epilogue, that shows Alex, after the passage of many years, having established a family and a life of reasonable virtue. He has made the choice not to pursue evil. That final chapter was excised from the book by its American publisher, for commercial reasons, I believe. (It was openly a religious statement; Burgess was a devout Catholic, and I suppose that the religious overtones frightened the publisher.)

Burgess rejected the version of the book that became popular, because it seemed to him that it betrayed his vision of the truth of the world. Because I was (and am) a lover of the vicious and viciously witty Little Alex, I was disappointed when I first encountered that final chapter. It seemed to me a come-down, a capitulation to common bourgeois morality on the part of the one fellow in the universe who had actually seemed willing gleefully to defy it.

Many years later, I have come to agree with Burgess that the book is incomplete without it. It simply comes full circle. The book as he intended it leaves the circle and arrives somewhere new. Clockwork Orange as we know it is a vignette, if a spectacular and spectacularly successful one. As Burgess intended it, it's a story.

Vignette, then, is not a function of length. I read lots of novels that are basically vignettes. And it makes sense that, faced with all this work - it's a big thing, destroying and remaking the world in five thousand words or so, when we're working in the short form - we often choose to do something that's considerably simpler. I know I do it all the time myself. As I look back over my work, the work of years, in my published volumes, in magazines, I see many examples of fictions that might have been stories but that ended up being vignettes.

By this definition, my novel Dogs of God is in fact a hundred-thousand-word vignette, which helps to explain why it has always disappointed me, that great whopping book (which in its original version was about thirty to forty thousand words longer, but no less a vignette, or series of vignettes). There is no new world into which the protagonist emerges, and no new protagonist, but just the beat-up shell of a man; and no world but the old world, revealed for the horror-filled, hollow place that it is.

Story, then, is the thing. Long-form or short-form, the call is nothing less than to reveal and remake everything.


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Great post. Lots of food for thought. I must admit to having written more than a few vignettes myself. Pressure to follow F's Triangle does tend to inhibit writers from starting with a bang - this is an excellent point you make.

I'm not sure that I agree with you about A Clockwork Orange. I've read both versions. I think there's a good argument to be made for the interior apocalypse. Alex leaves the clinic to continue his life, having experienced what it is to be a victim. One might consider this an interior apocalyptic change in itself. The ensuing chaos is the negotiation of his old word with  different eyes.The reader is really left to imagine what the new internal order is. So I can't really agree that, without the last UK-published chapter, Clockwork is just a vignette.

Thanks for your wonderful post!


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excellent point

re CLOCKWORK ORANGE and the internal apocalypse, which is a nice term - though my recollection of the book is that Alex ends exactly where he began: What's it going to be then, eh?

 There's room, of course, for considerable difference of opinion as to what constitutes change/apocalypse. It's the pursuit of the thing that counts.