I’ve heard creative nonfiction writers say that one of the things they find intimidating about writing fiction is that fiction has endless possibilities, and that this potential for fiction to go anywhere and everywhere overwhelms them*. I understand what they mean. I suppose there is a sense in which fiction has endless possibilities, but I’d suggest it really has only endless starting points. It is no different than their non-fiction efforts.
The very thing that makes writing fiction such a delicate and ridiculous undertaking is that there are in fact not endless possibilities. Each character and scene you write leads to a decision and this series of decisions moves the piece along on a unique journey – a journey that is (becomes, with each decision) the result of the specific needs of that piece. You role as a writer is to find out what the story needs in order to be successful. There is a right answer (or at least a very, very short list) at each cross-road along the way. The options are not endless. Each piece has elements that you must discover, elements that will make it pop. Successful story usually lies in one or two twists on reality or perspective on facts. There are factors that make story work and there are factors that make story fail. Creating fiction is not more mysterious or ambiguous than creating nonfiction.
(*I find that when writing creative nonfiction I am at constant risk of lying. I find myself straying off with some detail that fits so delightfully but didn’t happen. So I hold down the backspace key and sigh. It is difficult to stick to the facts. That stuff that the facts produce when left in the hands of a factionalist is what drives me along. That said, I am so thankful for books like “In the Heart of the Sea” and “Into Thin Air”, to name only a couple. I hope writers never stop writing creative nonfiction.)