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

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.

After examining some of Robert E. Howard’s approaches to opening a yarn, in part two it’s time for a snapshot overview to show how other famous pulp and Swords and Sorcery authors have also used these eight opening elements to great effect.

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

It was Elric, Lord of the lost and sundered Empire of Melnibone, who rode like a fanged wolf from a trap – all slavering madness and mirth. He rode from Nadsokor, City of Beggars, and there was hate in his wake. The citizens had judged him rightly for what he was – a nigromancer of superlative powers. Now they hounded him and also the grotesque little man who rode laughing at Elric’s side; Moonglum the Outlander, from Elwher and the unmapped East.
— Michael Moorcock, Kings in Darkness
Through all the long cold hours of the Norland night the Martian had not moved nor spoken. At dusk of the day before Eric John Stark had brought him into the ruined tower and laid him down, wrapped in blankets, on the snow. He had built a fire of dead brush, and since then the two men had waited, alone in the vast wasteland that girdles the polar cap of Mars.
— Leigh Brackett, Black Amazon of Mars

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

One night, as Elric sat moodily drinking alone in a tavern, a wingless woman of Myyrrhn came gliding out of the storm and rested her lithe body against him.
— Michael Moorcock, While the Gods Laugh

3) Begin just after the action or significant event.

They brought in Joiry’s tall commander, struggling between two men at arms who tightly gripped the ropes which bound their captive’s mailed arms. They picked their way between mounds of dead as they crossed the great hall towards the dais where the conqueror sat, and twice they slipped a little in the blood that splattered the flags.
— C.L. Moore, Black God’s Kiss

4) Begin by introducing an exotic character.

The rider paused at the crest of a wooded hill and gazed down on the wide rolling empty lands beneath him.
There was no sign of Jerusalem, no dark road glittering with diamonds. But then Jerusalem was always ahead, beckoning in the dreams of night, taunting him to find her on the black umbilical road.
— David Gemmell, Wolf in Shadow

5) Begin with an exotic scene.

The strange stars of the World of Nehwon glinted thickly above the black roofed city of Lankhmar, where swords clink almost as often as coins. For once there was no fog.
— Fritz Leiber, Bazaar of the Bizarre
The sand of the desert of Yondo is not as the sand of other deserts; for Yondo lies nearest of all to the world’s rim; and strange winds, blowing from a pit no astronomer may hope to fathom, have sown its ruinous fields with the gray dust of corroding planets, the black ashes of extinguished suns.
— Clark Ashton Smith, The Abominations of Yondo

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

It was in that year when the fashion in cruelty demanded not only the crucifixion of peasant children, but a similar fate for their pets, that I first met Lucifer and was transported into Hell; for the Prince of Darkness wished to strike a bargain with me.
— Michael Moorcock, The Warhound and the World’s Pain
So you think a man can cheat death and outwit doom?” said the small, pale man, whose bulging forehead was shadowed by a black cowl.
The Gray Mouser, holding the dice box ready for a throw, paused and quickly looked sideways at the questioner.
“I said that a cunning man can cheat death for a long time.
— Fritz Leiber, The Bleak Shore

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

Fear hovered in the moonlight over Lankhmar. Fear flowed like mist through the twisting thoroughfares and mazy alleyways trickling even into that most intricately curved and crevice-like street where a sootily flickering lantern marked the doorway to the tavern of the Silver Eel.
— Fritz Leiber, Claws in the Night

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

It was in the fall of 1947, three days prior to the annual football game between Stanford and the University of California, that the strange visitor from outer space landed in the middle of the huge stadium at Berkeley where the game was to be held.
— Clark Ashton Smith, Seedling of Mars
Through Jirel’s dreams a faraway voice went wailing. She opened yellow eyes upon darkness and lay still for a while, wondering what had waked her and staring into the gloom of her tower chamber…
— C.L. Moore, Black God’s Shadow

Each author’s personal approach hopefully provides a good enough example without commentary. Even the variations in style and presentation should emphasize the ubiquity and therefore usefulness of the eight elements as a palette of options with which to craft the opening of a yarn.

Of course there’s more at work here than just these elements. Viewpoint, diction, cadence, imagery and so much more are welded together by instinct and craft into a gestalt that transcends its components. But discussing all of those other factors is way beyond the scope of this article. Examining any parts of a yarn outside of the context of the whole is like looking at the parts of a disassembled watch - it only actually works when all the gears are interlocked and turning in fine precision.