From 2012 to 2015 I used to post over at the old Robert E. Howard forum at www.conan.com with the username Von Kalmbach. The old forum, under the generous patronage of Fred and Jay of CPI, assembled possibly the largest gathering of REH fans the internet has ever known over the fourteen years of it's existence. I used to post REH inspired fan fiction and poetry there, and had many great conversations with fellow REH fans.
When the old forum closed in early 2016 we migrated to Jason Aiken’s new forum at swordsofreh.proboards.net, where many of the old regulars still gather. I post there on a regular basis under the username Von K.
“Study the tricks of the writers who have arrived,” wrote Jack London, one of REH’s favourite writers. “They have mastered the tools with which you are cutting your fingers. They are doing things, and their work bears the internal evidence of how it is done. Don’t wait for some good samaritan to tell you, but dig it out for yourself.”
Robert E. Howard did not leave us much in the way of personal writing advice. The few direct comments we have by him on the topic are gleaned from his letters, or revealed by Novalyne Price Ellis in her biography One Who Walked Alone. However, for decades fans and aspiring writers have been learning from him by studying his example.
So, since Robert E. Howard was a master at story openings, it pays to take a look at some of the ways he begins his own yarns to catch a glimpse of what he may possibly have advised us had he spoken on the topic at greater length.
There are eight primary elements most often used by Robert E. Howard in opening narratives. I’ve included examples of each from his own fiction, primarily the Conan yarns.
Where do you begin?
1) Begin right in the middle of action, or a significant event.
2) Begin just before the action, or significant event, is about to start.
3) Begin just after the action or significant event.
4) Begin by introducing an exotic character.
5) Begin with an exotic scene.
6) Begin with a sudden, bold, intriguing, or startling statement.
7) Begin with atmosphere, a scene of danger, menace, mystery.
8) Begin with a sudden or startling discovery or occurrence.
Mixing it up
In reality REH is not using these individually. He is artfully blending them together and chaining them in sequence for greater effect. The opening of Black Colossus for instance includes three: an exotic character (Shevatas) in an exotic location (Kuthchemes) fraught with an atmosphere of unseen menace and danger. In Red Nails Howard gives us an exotic character (Valeria) in an exotic location (primitive forest) added to which is a hint of mystery later when she glimpses the lost city of Xuchotl afar off.
The Red Nails opening also demonstrates another way to compare and contrast by using incongruity. He creates more mystery in the reader’s mind by the incongruity of Valeria seeming “bizarre and out of place” in her current surroundings:
That implies the question of what is she doing here so far from her usual haunts.
So there it is. A palette of eight opening methods which REH mixed and matched and chained in sequence for greater effect, using also contrast and incongruity to achieve additional resonance.
Of course in actuality this is not so easy as it sounds, there’s an art to it. The creative judgement required is one of the writer’s most important skills, and that can only be honed from native talent by instruction, experience, feedback - and practice.