A Brief REH-Inspired Guide to Writing Great Story Openings (Part One)

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.

Conan Tower.jpg

“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?

Do you begin with a character or with a description of a place or with a plot?” I asked.

Bob thought a minute. “Every way, but mostly with a character, I suppose. I’ve got a character going now - Conan, the Barbarian...”

Clyde interrupted. “A ruthless barbarian who loves fights, and battles the supernatural.
— Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone

1) Begin right in the middle of action, or a significant event.

Hoofs drummed down the street that sloped to the wharfs. The folk that yelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on a black stallion, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind. Far up the street came the shout and clatter of pursuit, but the horseman did not look back.
— Robert E. Howard, The Queen of the Black Coast

2) Begin just before the action, or significant event, is about to start.

Kirby O’Donnell opened his chamber door and gazed out, his long keen bladed kindhjal in his hand. Somewhere a cresset glowed fitfully, dimly lighting the broad hallway, flanked by thick columns. The spaces between these columns were black arched wells of darkness, where anything might be lurking.

Nothing moved within his range of vision. The great hall seemed deserted. But he knew that he had not merely dreamed that he heard the stealthy pad of bare feet outside his door, the stealthy sound of unseen hands trying the portal.
— Robert E. Howard, Swords of Shahrazar

3) Begin just after the action or significant event.

The roar of battle had died away; the shout of victory mingled with the cries of the dying. Like gay-hued leaves after an autumn storm, the fallen littered the plain; the sinking sun shimmered on burnished helmets, gilt-worked mail, silver breastplates, broken swords and the heavy regal folds of silken standards, overthrown in pools of curdling crimson.
— Robert E. Howard, The Scarlet Citadel

4) Begin by introducing an exotic character.

The woman on the horse reined in her weary steed. It stood with its legs wide-braced, its head drooping, as if it found even the weight of the gold-tassled, red-leather bridle too heavy. The woman drew a booted foot out of the silver stirrup and swung down from the gilt-worked saddle. She made the reins fast to the fork of a sapling, and turned about, hands on her hips, to survey her surroundings.
— Robert E. Howard, Red Nails

5) Begin with an exotic scene.

Torches flared murkily on the revels in the Maul, where the thieves of the east held carnival by night. In the Maul they could carouse and roar as they liked, for honest people shunned the quarters, and watchmen, well paid with stained coins, did not interfere with their sport.
— Robert E. Howard, The Tower of the Elephant

6) Begin with a sudden, bold, intriguing, or startling statement.

I came to Dagon’s Cave to kill Richard Brent. I went down the dusky avenues made by the towering trees, and my mood well matched the primitive grimness of the scene.
— Robert E. Howard, People of the Dark

7) Begin with atmosphere, a scene of danger, menace, mystery.

Only the age-old silence brooded over the mysterious ruins of Kuthchemes, but Fear was there; Fear quivered in the mind of Shevatas, the thief, driving his breath quick and sharp against his clenched teeth.
— Robert E. Howard, Black Colossus

8) Begin with a sudden or startling discovery or occurrence.

Arus the watchman grasped his crossbow with shaky hands, and he felt beads of clammy perspiration on his skin as he stared at the unlovely corpse sprawling on the polished floor before him. It is not pleasant to come upon Death in a lonely place at midnight.
— Robert E. Howard, The God in the Bowl

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:

Against the background of somber, primitive forest she posed with an unconscious picturesqueness, bizarre and out of place. She should have been posed against a background of sea-clouds, painted masts and wheeling gulls. There was the color of the sea in her wide eyes.
— Robert E. Howard, Red Nails

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. 

…the secret, he said, was to write, write, write.
— Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone