Writing Alternate Endings: How To Improve As A Writer

Sometimes, when you finish a book, film, or tv show you realize that the ending wasn’t at all satisfying. An imperfect ending will greatly affect how you feel about the story as a whole. To avoid this in your own work, and improve as a writer, you will want to try to write alternate endings to your story. Or maybe you’ll just want to write an alternate ending to the show you watched – and didn’t like what it came with.

Writing an alternate ending comes down to doing the following:

  • Assess where the existing ending went wrong, and the alternate ending should start
  • Figure out conflicts and solutions
  • Evaluate character growth
  • Experiment with several new endings

While there is no exact way to teach you how to write an alternate ending, if you’re really stuck, we have some tips for you to get out of your rut, and write a good alternate ending. 

Image of writing concept word on a blackboard background

What is an Alternate Ending to a Story?

The first thing that should be established is what an alternate ending actually is. An alternate ending is the ending of a story that is different from the one published, or from what the author originally intended.

Have you ever heard of an author saying that the book took them where it wanted to go, not where they intended it? That’s an example of an alternate ending.

You start out knowing exactly what you want to happen, but when you sit down to write it, it makes more sense to do it another way. This doesn’t mean everything is completely different from how you intended it, but there is a significant enough shift that the ending is ‘alternate’ instead of just edited.

The alternate ending usually is not considered to be ‘canon’ in the story’s universe, but rather another, generally less compelling ending to the characters’ story. However, you will never be able to please everybody, which is where fan fiction has its origins. It allows for people to write their own alternate endings, and resolve the characters’ conflicts in the way that they would prefer for it to happen.

Why Should I Write an Alternate Ending?

You know you will need to write an alternate ending if the original one written does not feel satisfactory; or if it leaves the readers with too many unanswered questions (unless you plan on writing a sequel); or ultimately – if your editor says you should.

The ending is the last thing people get before they decide if the entire work was great or terrible, so it has to be good.

If the ending does not provide a satisfactory solution to the problems faced in the story, it will feel unfinished. And while you may want to continue with a sequel, not answering any questions throughout the novel will leave the readers feeling frustrated, and you could lose their confidence in your story.

Writing an alternate ending or two (or as many as you want), can also be a great way for you to figure out which ending packs the biggest punch.

If you don’t know where you want the story to end up exactly, or if you haven’t been led one way or another while writing, writing a couple of endings could provide you with some more clarity on what the options are. You might end up with a combination of a couple of your written endings, giving the best resolution to as many of the characters involved as you can.

Another reason to write an alternate ending is to see exactly where you don’t want your story to go. Writing something completely off-topic is actually a good way to get back on topic, because it allows you to burn off some of the excess creativity, so your ending isn’t all over the place.

Image of top view of female hands holding cup of coffee above pencils, paper and crumpled papers on a wooden table

How Do You Write an Alternate Ending?

To write an alternate ending, you need to significantly change how the plot progresses, generally after or during the climax, affecting the characters involved. This is not always an easy task, but it is advisable to follow the following steps.

1. Figure out the point that begins the need for change

Whether this is the final chapter or a couple of chapters before the end, you should find the part of the story that you are unhappy with, or would create the most change, and start from there.

If you can’t immediately spot where things went wrong, find another decision that a character made (that you didn’t like). Change that decision – and go from there.

2. Write out the main conflicts or problems in your story, and how to solve them

If you want to create an alternate ending to your story, you will first need to figure out what the problems are in the story. What are the characters facing, and how can these problems be solved? Is there more than one way to solve this problem?

It’s important to be able to answer these questions because you don’t want to leave unresolved conflict in your story. It doesn’t all have to wrap up nicely, but it does have to be finished. Write out the problems that they are facing, and jot down different ways to solve them. Can you solve more than one problem the same way? Does everything need different solutions?

3. Ask yourself how the solution will help the characters grow

Your characters should evolve throughout your story, and the ending will show just how far they have come from the beginning. While they don’t have to be a completely different character when the story has ended, if they are the same person when it’s over, was there a point in including them in the story at all?

Choosing the solutions that help with character development, especially if you are planning to write a sequel, will keep your readers engaged. They want to believe people can overcome their problems, and become better people.

4. Experiment with different types of endings

How you end your novel is completely up to you, and should be dependent upon the type of novel you are writing, but experiment with writing a short ending, one that answers questions but leaves a lot up to interpretation, a tied ending, that brings everything full circle, or an unexpected ending, throwing in a twist.  MasterClass has a great article, with options for types of endings, that you can read here.

You never know what will fit your story the most until you write it, and sometimes your first instinct isn’t always going to be the best choice. Giving yourself options is a great way to make sure the story follows what it wants, and not what you wish for it.

Image of male hands holding the pen and coffee on the other hand on top of a blank notebook

How Long Should an Alternate Ending be?

Thankfully, it’s your story, and you can create your alternate ending to be as long or short as you want. If you’re writing a novel, your new ending probably shouldn’t be more than 1-2 chapters. You don’t want to lose your reader in the end. It’s supposed to wrap up the text, not lead them on forever.

As a general suggestion, if you have to change your ending, you should keep it at the same length you had before, or a little shorter (unless you are changing it because your ending felt too abrupt). This rule is important because it helps to keep you accountable for the length and cut down on any extra information that is not relevant to the storyline.

However, if you are just writing for yourself, you can make this as long as you want. If your heroes wrap up their story, but then you want to explore the next week with them as they recover and go back to their daily lives, you should do that.

It might not all end up in your final copy, but it will help you understand your characters better. It also might help you ease yourself out of the world in which you are writing, and into another.  

Why Do Movies Make Alternate Endings?

Before a movie is released to the general public, it will go through a test screening process. Those involved in the test screening normally come from a wide variety of the population, to get the most accurate results. This process will help the studio to learn what worked in the movie, what people liked, and didn’t like. It also helps to prevent a box office flop, and make the most money out of their production.

Audiences are provided with a questionnaire after a movie, or buttons to press during the movie, where they can say what parts make them happy, sad, angry, etc. If this is done early enough before the release of the movie, it allows the filmmakers to go back and change what didn’t work.

Spoiler warning for the movie Legally Blonde.

This happened with the movie Legally Blonde, as the original ending had Emmett coming up and kissing Elle, and then jumping to the future to Elle’s Legally Blonde Defense Fund. Test audiences did not like this ending, because it was not exciting enough for her, success-wise.

They decided to add the graduation speech instead, to round out Elle’s character, and continue with the development they had been building throughout the film.

And then they made a sequel.

Image of the word story- handwritten with fountain pen

Other Alternate Ending Examples

Writers will create alternate endings for many different reasons. The majority of them are not shared, and just end up on the editing room floor. However, sometimes the creators share what didn’t make the final cut.

Please note that this section will contain spoilers for Matilda, Thirteen Reasons Why, and The Lion King.

Literature

The ending to Roald Dahl’s Matilda has Matilda’s parents agreeing to surrender custody to Miss Honey, where Matilda can live the rest of her childhood happy and free from the abuse she was facing at home.

One of his earlier versions of the story had Matilda dying in the end. This Matilda would have been a cautionary tale, as the character was originally going to be naughty, playing pranks on everyone around her. Her death would have been a cautionary tale to all children reading, of what could happen to them if they acted like her.

Thankfully, this idea was scrapped, and we have the lovely version of Matilda that we do.

As a direct contract, in the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, Hannah commits suicide. Originally, author Jay Asher had meant for her to survive, but he was using it as a powerful reminder to readers that there aren’t always second chances with suicide. He instead wanted to show readers that there is a possibility for people to change “for the better, even after tragedy.”

Film

Did you know that The Lion King had an alternate ending? While the official ending had Scar being mauled to death by the hyenas, the original ending was far more horrifying.

Originally, in Simba and Scar’s fight, while everything around them is burning, Scar throws Simba off of Pride Rock, and into the fire below. Simba lands on a tree, which breaks his fall and protects him from the flames. He is able to narrowly escape, but Scar, still on Pride Rock, does not know this, and thinks he has died. He then starts laughing in victory as he is engulfed by flames and burned to death.

Ultimately, this idea was scrapped as it was too horrific for a Disney movie (especially after making children watch Mufasa die in a stampede), and was not as interesting as the poetic justice of having the hyenas maul Scar.

It also might have been too confusing for younger viewers, since Simba was able to escape the fire, how would they know that Scar didn’t as well?

Fan Fiction

While not written by the original creator, Fan Fiction is another great example of alternate endings. Fan Fiction is primarily written for two reasons: the writer did not like how the original story ended, or the writer just wanted to explore different aspects of their favorite characters from the original work.

Fan Fiction is also another way to develop yourself as a writer, since the characters and universe are already created, and it allows the writer to develop their writing skills without having to do all the world-building. It’s also a great way to get immediate feedback on your writing through comments.

And hey – some fan fiction gets enough traction that it becomes its own thing – while retaining memory or homage to the original work. Although, there are no sparkly vampires in 50 Shades of Gray, or so I’m told.

Key Takeaways

Whether you’re writing your own personal ending to a story (whether on a tv show, film, book, or whatever), a fanfic piece, or your own story, writing an alternate ending can be a great way to improve, change, or differentiate your story.

It can be a great way to play with themes, motifs, and poetic justice.

Speaking of poetic justice and short stories, make sure you read this article next: How Should Short Stories Be Studied At First?

Happy writing!

Cite this article as: “Writing Alternate Endings: How To Improve As A Writer.” Kimberly C. Starr, 3 September 2021, kimberlycstarr.com/writing-alternate-endings-how-to-improve-as-a-writer/.

Resources

When learning about anything, it’s important to learn from a wide variety of reputable sources. These are the sources I used in this article and in my personal research to be more informed.

  • Highfill, Samantha. “The Full Story behind the Legally Blonde Ending You Didn’t Get to See.” EW.Com, 30 Mar. 2018, ew.com/movies/2018/03/30/legally-blonde-alternate-ending.
  • https:\/\/bookstr.com\/author\/angelaliao\/#author. “6 Famous Books You Didn’t Know Had Alternate Endings.” Bookstr, 28 June 2017, bookstr.com/list/6-famous-books-you-didnt-know-had-alternate-endings.
  • “Wiki Targeted (Entertainment).” Disney Wiki, disney.fandom.com/wiki/The_Lion_King_Alternate_Ending.