19 February 2014

Best Question

Writers have been known to gripe about certain questions  they receive over and over.  But human nature being what it is, we don't spend so much time talking about the questions we like.  (And if you have any favorites, plunk 'em into the comments.)

I want to concentrate on one question in particular, because it is vital to our business. 

Donald E. Westlake wrote an essay called "Tangled Webs For Sale: Best Offer,"  which appeared in I, Witness, an excellent collection of essays by mystery writers about  their experiences with true crime.  In his essay Westlake regales some strangers at a party with the true tale of some French criminals who stole the plan for a kidnapping from a novel by Lionel White.  Westlake is interrupted and then:

"What happened next?" demanded two or three fringe members of the group.  (They were, had they but known it, exemplifying not only the human need for narrative which creates jobs for storytellers like me, but also the professional need which at times drives writers to seek the answer to that question in other writers' books.)

What happened next?  That hunger to find out is what keeps folks turning pages, God bless 'em.

Back in 1979 my first story was published in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine (and yes, that was the cover).  I thought it had a reasonable ending.  Basically, a boy in a South American village has saved the life of his employer who is a very bad man indeed.  The employer is moved by the boy's action and it looks like his whole outlook on the world might be changed.  But the reader learns that the boy is simply keeping the man alive until he is old enough to sell him to a higher bidder.

When the story was published naturally I showed it off to some people.  A lot of people.  One of them was my wife's co-worker, Dorothy.  When she read it she immediately asked "What happened next?"

I assured her that I had no idea.  This did not satisfy her, and every time I walked into that office after that Dorothy glared at me and asked "What happened next?"

Finally I told her that the day after the story ended the boy won the lottery and his family and the employer bought a house by the seashore together.  Oddly enough, this didn't please her either.

Which brings up another point, doesn't it?  Wanting to know what happens after the ending may not be a good idea.  Or, maybe, instead of the ending. 

Connie Willis, one of my favorite science fiction writers, wrote a book called Remake in which technology had advanced sufficiently that anyone could remake a movie, essentially Photoshop it, so that , for example, Sonny doesn't get shot to death in The Godfather.  (Oops, spoiler alert there!)   She noted that one of the most popular changes was to "fix" Casblanca so that Rick ends up with Ilsa.  But, her main character points out, there is no way to make that happen without turning  Rick and Ilsa into  bad guys. 

I have been pondering this because my last story in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine was a sequel I never expected to write.   I didn't feel any need to know what happened next with that character.  Then suddenly I did.  And more to the point, my next story in AHMM is a sequel to another story I never thought needed any company. 

Do you want to hear about that?  Come back in two weeks, because that's what happens next.


  1. Congrats on the sales. Who knows how far the "What happened next?" can take you in stories? Just shows that your characters are real to your readers.

  2. Coincidentally, I've just had a "What happened next?" experience. I've been toying with the idea of bringing back the protagonist of a certain novella in a novel starting a year after the events of the novella. Last week I got an idea for a story to submit on a particular set theme for an anthology, using the same protagonist and starting immediately after the events of the novella. Only after I'd written and polished the story and sent it in did I realize that it put my protagonist in exactly the same position, with exactly the same justification, as that of someone she's furious at because of what happened in the novella. Should I conclude "Oops!" "Hmm...," or "Wow!"?

  3. I hope one does answer the question, What happened to the boy in the earliest story!

  4. I always want to know what happened next, but when I think about it, I rarely like what the AUTHOR says happened next, beginning with the Little Women series: I disagreed with almost every plot point in "Little Men" and "Jo's Boys". I hated what Lynn Johnston did to the kids' characters the last year of "For Better or Worse". And I am as one with all those who took to the streets to demand Holmes' return from the Reichenbach Falls. That being said, can hardly wait to read the sequel! :)

  5. If that's to me, Janice, no boy involved. The protagonist of the works in question is the nice Jewish girl who's also a country music star and a shapeshifter. The only boys in my stories are Diego in "The Green Cross," and what happens next is the novel, Voyage of Strangers, and the protagonist of the standalone story that's just been accepted by AHMM and will probably not appear for ages. I have backstory (or would you call it frontstory?) for a sequel to Voyage of Strangers: they think they're going to live in Firenze under Lorenzo de Medici, but they end up in Turkey, which is exactly what would have happened in real life. But I might not ever write it.

  6. I notice Dick Stodghill leads on the cover of Mike Shayne! There’s a good memory!

  7. Great column, Rob!

    Dick Stodghill--good memories indeed.

  8. You point out why writers like to work with a series. Once you have interesting characters, readers do want to know what will happen next to them. I find my Kim Reynolds mysteries are much more popular than my stand alone mystery novels. The same can be said for mystery short stories.

  9. "What happened next?" That is definitely the best question an author can be asked by a reader! I can't top that. Fun post, Rob.

  10. The classic "What Happened Next" story is "The Lady or the Tiger" by Frank R. Stockton. A close second is "The Monkey's Paw" by W.W. Jacobs. These stories owe their appeal and longevity (IMHO)to the very ambiguity of the endings, as well as being brilliantly constructed. They make you think and ponder, and therefore stay in the mind long after being read.

  11. Yeah, I miss Stodgill, whom I never met. His blog is still worth reading. Pick a piece at random: http://stodg.blogspot.com/

    Eve, sequels can definitely be disappointing. When ROddy DOyle wrote PAULA SPENCER I let it sit for months, afraid it couldn't be as good as THE WOMAN WHO WALKED INTO DOORS. It came close enough.

    Jacqueline, yes, sometimes when an author dies I find myself wondering if the characters are still out there, with no one to record their stories...
    Lida, I hadn't thought about bringing up cliffhangers per se. Thanks for pointing to them.

  12. That's the question that keeps me writing, even at my snail's pace. It's the one I hope I leave people with, even though I don't write anything approaching cliffhangers.

  13. As you described that early Mike Shayne magazine story, Robert, it seems to me nobody needed to ask "what next?"; you'd told them.

    In any case, congrats on the more recent sales.


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