There was a story in this round of slush that still shocks me to the core. It opened with a stereotypical (in both senses of the word) western salon set in the past and the racist language of the protagonists made me nope right out of the story after the second paragraph.
The Brown M&M Principle works for stories as well. It’s the moment I read something and I’m already closing down the file before even being aware of it. Relying on harmful stereotypes to tell your story has to be my biggest one, and it’s why I instantly closed the western.
It makes me think of how many times in my career I’ve had to tell people that it is true that Dr. Gregory House is an asshole with a heart. But that doesn’t mean your reader will care about your heartless asshole character.
There are ways to write protagonists who had the modern ethos of their day but unexaminedly is the most difficult way of all. This story didn’t have any of the critical levels of finesse it needed to pull something like that off.
However, there is an editorial canary that I also pay attention to. As soon as it no longer cares what’s going to happen next and no part of the story is indicating that this is going somewhere interesting, I check out of the story. I will usually skim to the end, but only because I’m a completionist.
Gratuitous violence starting the story is a story that starts with the canary already gasping. This isn’t a “how gratuitous is too gratuitous” debate. Untold violence visited on a character I didn’t know from anyone two seconds ago is meaningless to me and a very common opening to boot. A story starting with an arm flying off or a gut ripped open by a bored yet witty character is usually naked with the author’s intention to show how bad-ass this character is, in particular, but they’re indistinguishable from each other.
Now, start a story with a character who doesn’t want to be tearing people up and you might just have me.
Even better is showing your character being bad-ass in a way that doesn’t involve chopping other unknown characters from nave to chaps, boredly. It won’t kill my editorial canary if it happens, but that’s the point I stop reading for action and start reading to see if there’s a real character under the actions they are performing.
Because if there isn’t, that’s a brown M&M moment for me as well.