Lessons to Practice #7: The Essence of Setting

Tonight I have setting on my mind. Not just its importance or its definition, but its essence. What makes a setting? Is it a specific physical location? A staging ground for the characters to interact and develop? Or the ways in which a particular place triggers our five senses and evokes our emotional response? For me, it is all of the above.

The first example that came to my mind when I thought of setting is the town of Silent Hill, which is perhaps THE most important aspect of the eponymous video game series. Silent Hill is a sleepy lakeside resort town that hides layer upon layer of human cruelty and supernatural mythos. I can’t help but laugh at how the fictional editor Rodger Widmark (ironically) describes the town in a cheery brochure, which can be found in room 104 of the Wood Side Apartments in Silent Hill 2:

Welcome to Silent Hill!
Silent Hill, a quiet little Lakeside resort town. We’re happy to have you.
Take some time out of your busy schedules and enjoy a nice restful vacation here.
Row after row of quaint old houses, a gorgeous mountain landscape, and a lake which shows
different sides of its beauty with the passing of the day, from sunrise to late afternoon to sunset.
Silent Hill will move you and fill you with a feeling of deep peace.
We hope your time here will be pleasant and your memories will last forever.

~ Roger Widmark

SH 2 Roger Widmark

Feeling of deep peace, my ass!

Widmark’s writings only further belie the horrors that infest every empty street and derelict building in town. Silent Hill is infused with the otherworldly powers of the Native Americans and spirits who once occupied the land centuries ago. It is a town where characters like Harry Mason, James Sunderland, and Heather Mason come to confront the darkest horrors of their psyche, whether they are driven by revenge, fatherly love, or guilt over their sins.

How much does setting add to the layers of fear and psychological tension permeating each game? The answer is: a lot! You see, it’s not just the monsters or tragic characters that make Silent Hill come alive. It’s the ambiance generated by all these horrifying images being combined with otherworldly shrieks and clatter, impossible shifts in building layouts, and, perhaps most powerfully, the absence of sound at key moments.

Blue Creek Apartments


The Butterfly Room


Hilltop Hell

The Alternate Hilltop Center, complete with crucifixion imagery

SH2 HD Rosewater Park

Rosewater Park, where James first meets the alluring Maria

Even in a video game, setting is still absolutely paramount to making the story resonate with us. What better way to manifest James’ repressed desire and aching for his deceased wife than to have him meet Maria, who talks in a sultry manner to him, next to an almost completely dried-up lakeside? Similarly, in Silent Hill 3 the motifs of stained-glass windows and pulsating bloody walls are perfect physical representations of the religious fanaticism and persecutory memories which heroine Heather Mason is fighting against. There’s a lot more to the series than monsters and jump scares, and, thanks to the setting, that quickly becomes clear during your first play-through of each game.

In creative writing, I think we often give too little weight to the development of our settings. To make our fiction really stand out, most or all of our locations must serve the following purposes:

  1. Establish tone
  2. Relate to the main character(s)’s struggles and goals
  3. Serve as the stage upon which our characters interact, mature, and surprise us
  4. Engage our senses (if not smell and touch, then sight and sound at the very least)
  5. Draw us deeper into the story, almost to the point where we feel that we are really in that world, be it fictional or in the past

As a writer, I am solemnly swearing now and forever that I will give more consideration to my own settings. I know that would make me and my readers much happier, haha.

Thanks for reading! Do you spend a lot of time and thought on your settings? What is one of your most favorite settings that you’ve written so far? Comment below and let me know!


2 thoughts on “Lessons to Practice #7: The Essence of Setting

    • Thank you so much Akaluv! The series is a personal favorite of mine, and one I often go back to when I need inspiration for characters and settings 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed my post!


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