Many people will tell you the goal of writing is to tell a story. Preferably a good story. And bonus points if you tell it well.
Those people are wrong.
The goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the minds of others. It’s done with words, but the picture is the goal.
In a sense, every writer is a cinematographer. Every writer wants to make you see what s/he sees. Artists do it with paint, photographers with cameras (used to be film, but no more), writers with words. A picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps, but what’s lovely about using words instead of paint or film is the fluidity. A painting or photograph is static, even when it gives the impression of movement. But words are always in motion. And no two people will visualize the exact same thing, not until that book becomes a movie anyway.
So if the goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the mind of the reader . . . And yet the reader will never be able to see it exactly as the writer does . . . Doesn’t that mean all writing is a failure? Maybe. But it’s wonderfully freeing to know, as a writer, that there is no exactly right way to do your job. Only that some ways are better than others. And it’s freeing for the reader, too, to know there is no right way to do his or her job, either. (Unless you’re reading for English Lit class and your instructor has very definite ideas about things. But that’s something else again.)
At the end of the day, a writer should be trying to make himself or herself clear to the reader. If I’m picturing two people at a restaurant, it’s easy to say that much. But now everyone is picturing two random people in various types of restaurants: Is it upscale? A dive? Is it day or night? Two men? A man and a woman? Two women? Are they friends, lovers, enemies, coworkers?
When writing a script, each scene begins with a “slug” that tells the director (and location scouts, and art department, etc.) where and when the characters are. For example:
INT. DAVID’S BEDROOM – DAY
When writing prose, you can’t start every scene this way; it would be silly. But you should start with it in mind so that the reader knows where s/he is and what s/he’s looking at.
In a script, if it is the first time you’ve seen a location, there will be a description. Not too detailed—broad strokes except when something is important to the plot. What does David’s bedroom look like?
Remarkably tidy room, blank walls; looks unused, impersonal as a hotel room except for the stack of library books on the floor beside the bed.
That’s how I might write it as part of a script; in prose, I would naturally not pare it down quite so much. But that little bit already says a lot about David, doesn’t it? Readers (or viewers) suddenly know more about him in that brief bit of description than any amount of dialogue might have conveyed. (And the director, the actor, the art department all know more, too.)
Because prose changes locations without a transitioning camera, it’s even more important to make it clear to a reader where the characters are, what they are passing through. The reader can’t see it if you don’t put it on the page. And with nothing to “look” at, the reader becomes lost in a kind of void. I read a story recently that had people in a car, then in a restaurant, then going on to another location. Back in the car, I assumed, though it wasn’t clear. And when at one point a character went to set something down, I found myself thinking: Setting it down where? Where are they? I was lost. I was not seeing the picture the writer was trying to paint for me.
Every writer uses words to paint pictures. Poets, novelists, screenwriters, playwrights. In the cases of screenwriters and playwrights, the goal is to have those pictures made real, either on stage or screen. (At that point, like a painting or photograph, the screen version becomes static and definitive. The stage, however, remains fluid, as there can be many interpretations of the material, and even differences within the same production from night to night.) Admittedly, novelists may wish to have movies made of their books as well. But first things first: you have to paint a picture for your readers. You have to make them see it. When they can see it, they can feel it, they can connect. And that is the goal.