We’ve all heard the phrase, “Life is not a straight line.” This holds true not just for our own experiences, but also for the types of stories and lives of characters we encounter in stories. Yet, in fiction, the temptation often exists to create linear journeys, with heroes marching steadfastly towards their goals. But what about the detours, the unexpected turns, the moments where characters veer off course? These diversions, often dismissed as mere plot twists, can be the very essence of a character’s arc. 

To many writers, diversion is the creation of a surprise in a narrative, and the thrill of that surprise is what keeps the reader involved in the story. The word “diversion” has its first recorded use in England in the early 1600s.  It is believed that the concept of diversion bore some similarities with some elements of writing discussed in the treatise “On the Sublime” by the Greek philosopher, Longinus, but it became popularized by eighteenth-century writers who employed digression as a form of diversion. For Longinus, diversion, as a crucial literary device, suspends the reader’s sense of disbelief. Generally, in literature, it refers to the practice of including stories within the main story. The stories within the story are usually very brief and are often used to expound on a particular element of the main story. As Peter Selgin notes, by its very essence, a story is “an exercise in controlling information.” Writers must skillfully dole out knowledge to create patches of unknowledge – i.e., suspense – and keep the reader interested. Such diversion, in the form of well-timed revelations and withheld information, does not happen solely according to the creative strategy of the individual writer but adheres to a tradition as old as the stories themselves. The main purpose of a diversion is to create a sense of anticipation or to build enough suspense to keep the readers interested in the main story. A writer could also use this technique to provide the reader with some necessary background information that cannot be included in the main story or to help set up a climax. By using the different stories within the main story, the writer has a chance to provide a much wider view of the world. The reader gets various perspectives on different elements of the overall story. This can serve to make even the most fantastical of stories seem more real because it is demonstrated that different characters have different, opposing views and so on. Also, by giving the reader ‘breaks’ in the main plot where they get to read other smaller, self-contained stories, the writing becomes a lot more accessible and targeted to all kinds of readers.  

In simple terms, diversion in fiction, like other forms of display, seeks to do more than to decorate or to entertain the audience. When one witness in a court trial declares that, for example, defendant A did not break into a house, it is so easy for the audience to keep making wild, imaginary scenarios of how the burglary took place. However, the narrative, fabricated in their minds, is abruptly cut when the same witness suggests that in fact, the burglary did not even take place on the previous night as he claims to know, but on the night in question. By offering new, surprising twists to an on-going temporal narrative and deconstructing the audience’s version of the known events, the narrative gets a boost. Through diversion, we see the writer cleverly creating situations in which the reader’s anticipation is crafted to naturally expect a certain chain of events. This then allows the writer to break this chain and surprise the audience.  

It is of course important that writers should discern when to use diversion as a literary device in such that subplots, creation of cliffhangers at the end of chapters, adding in unexpected twists, deceptions, strategic revelation of information, and creating an open ending, all contribute to keeping the reader diverted. The reader feels smart when they catch the hints and forms expectations on how the story will unfold. At the same time, they become curious to find out whether the predictions are accurate as the plot progresses. In turn, by being engaged in the reading, emotions are evoked as the story takes the reader through different methods of diversion, making the reader experience the special and stunningly galvanized into plot and characters. For example, a well-timed twist can suggest hidden correlatives and themes. Or it can inject an unexpected viewpoint that might add a fresh sight or serve to emphasize thematic elements. Well-disciplined use of diversion often profound the reading. Readers may continue to explore to find out what each new turning and twist may uncover and can be delighted by success at prediction or stunned by a wily and subtle deception. This act of provocation is a delight to many readers who find the discovery and unraveling of solutions highly satisfying. In this manner, diversion enables the reader to be active on a metaphysical and emotional level. 

Again, when we think of how diversion can become a shrapnel for crafting the character arc, it becomes clear that characters are not robots programmed towards a predetermined conclusion. They are complex beings shaped by choices, experiences, and the unforeseen twists and turns of life. Through diversions, the writer can add depth, nuance, and a touch of the unpredictable to their journeys.  

Why does there need to be a twist in the plot in every story, you may ask? It is an interesting point to focus on, the real thing is that if one diverts someone’s attention, and then that other person will most probably be focused on other things, instead of finding out the truth. So, the reader will not try to discover the writer’s true opinion or where the story is set if it is made clear. If a writer is telling a story directly, then diversion would be in the form of flashbacks and maybe the introduction of more than one small puzzle, maybe a few more than two! It is remarkably interesting because if you take the definition out onto the internet or open books, you will find that diversion covers many different parts of stories, from characterizations to distinct types of diversion. 

It is important to consider some real-life examples of how diversion works. Fans of this literature will find various examples of distraction at work in short stories across the ages that have been written by a range of authors as well. A great example to start with is “The Purloined Letter,” written by Edgar Allan Poe and first published over 150 years ago. This classic short story is about the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin as he attempts to retrieve an incriminating letter that is being used for blackmail. Throughout the story, there is a sense of deliberate, misleading information that is being given to the reader, which distracts from reality and makes it more difficult to discover the truth. This kind of diversion could further be used to create suspense within the reader as one avenue is explored after the other, each with its own sense of partial logic and progress. Another prominent example of diversion in short stories can be found in the work of Shirley Jackson and her famous short story called “The Lottery.” This tale of a small town that commits human sacrifice as part of the harvest ritual was first published in 1948, with some readers dismissing it as being nothing more than mere sensationalist horror. However, when looking deeply at the themes within the story, it becomes clear that Jackson has intentionally used diversion to guide the reader towards shock and distaste for the characters and society within the story. The use of detail to distract from the grotesque occurrences of the “lottery” and to prepare the reader for something entirely different is a key strategy; the fact that the ending comes as it does shows that diversion has been used effectively in this piece. Through exploring these examples of diversion in short stories, the message of how this works to create interesting and absorbing literature becomes clearer.  

While the town is small and it seems everyone knows each other, the truth is that it is completely isolated. The village serves as a dehumanizing environment that is resulting in a change in society. First, we can observe the irony of the town’s and the lottery’s name, as the lottery is commonly known to be a good thing to win and be a part of, but in this situation, the ‘prize’ is death. The first mention of tradition comes when the boys see each other and make a pile of stones. Soon after, the parents, especially the dad, are with the boys. He’s reminding the boy of how to arrange the stones and Jackson writes, “Bobby Martin has already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones…” (Jackson, 2009). The author wanted to clearly show how even the youngest of the village knew what they were doing, what is the underlying meaning of this ritual, and how to bring the evil of the event to its success. This creates an atmosphere of horror as even the audience becomes aware that a successful prize of winning is death, as they see that everyone, children and adults, had taken part in organizing the lottery and preparing for it for the past few weeks. Finally, when the victims gain a voice after the winner has been selected and is going to die, they use ‘it isn’t fair, it isn’t right.’ It is a reminder that people and society do have the power to change things and that they’re not losing their voice to fear. 

-Aishat Babatunde, Mid-American Review