by Robert Lopresti
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'
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
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.