This week for #amlinking, we read Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell's 1959 novel about India Bridge, a character he doesn't like or care about all that much, and the developments in her family over a period of several years. Instead of using the traditional chapter/scene format, Connell writes this novel as a series of vignettes (most are 1-2 pages, while the longest is around 5 pages long).
While I didn't care for the condescending stance Connell takes toward Mrs. Bridge--instead of feeling compassion for a woman whose world is crumbling around her, I felt prompted to point and laugh at her passive inability to take control of her life--the structure was fairly interesting. The main advantage an author can gain from using vignettes (or very short scenes) instead of longer scenes is that it forces the author to have a specific purpose for each section (usually just one purpose, though sometimes more), and to figure out how to express that purpose with as little extraneous detail as possible. Obviously, this can save an author from getting lost in a scene that meanders for a long time but doesn't really go anywhere.
A recent novel that uses a similar format is Sold, by Patricia McCormick, which tells the story of a young Nepalese girl, Lakshmi, who is sold into sexual slavery. Sold is told entirely from Lakshmi's first-person narrator point of view, whereas Mrs. Bridge employs an omniscient third-person narrator. McCormick uses this point of view to increase the pathos of the story--as readers, we can figure what is happening to Lakshmi long before she does--as well as to elliptically "look away" from some of the most painful moments in the story. (Since Sold was marketed as a young-adult novel, this strategy proves invaluable to keeping the story from becoming too graphic for its targeted audience.) Additionally, it gives a human, personal voice to what could otherwise become another "tragedy of poverty" story.
Another advantage of the brief scene format is that it allows the author to cover a long time frame in a minimum of pages. Mrs. Bridge covers the entire span of a life in fewer than 250 pages. This format can also give an author greater license to jump around and skip the boring/non essential parts and only focus on the highlights of the story with a minimum of scene-setting and exposition.
One drawback of vignette novels is that, because the story starts and stops so often, it can be difficult to keep readers motivated to continue reading; having to continually jump into one scene after another can be exhausting. This is similar to the problem "novels-in-short-stories" face, except that a single vignette often does not have a complete, self-contained story arc that a short story does.