For a series to remain engaging, its author needs to strike a delicate balance between variety and predictability. Variety keeps it interesting; predictability makes it comforting. Poppy Z. Brite's Liquor stories exemplify, for me, series fiction done right. None of those tales ever let me down. None contained any jarringly unpleasant surprises. Reading each novel, novella, and short was like revisiting a dear group of friends in a beloved place and knowing we were about to have fun together -- the best possible reunion.
So what can ruin a series? I believe it's the loss of one of those essential elements mentioned above. An author can squelch reader interest by dishing up the same old same-old, like Anita Blake repeatedly boinking her way through paranormal populations. Or an author can undermine the comfort factor by throwing in something the reader hadn't bargained for and can't accept.
I just encountered what for me was a series killer, and it's related to the element of predictability. A single development, even a single incident, can have this power. I've come to think of such unexpected departures as "game changers."
For many followers of the Adrien English Mysteries, Jake's physical abuse of Adrien was a game changer. A huge one. It made those readers distrustful, even contemptuous, of the relationship arc that was central to the series. It colored (or discolored) their attitudes toward the main characters. It made those readers wary of how the series would proceed. But Josh Lanyon is an exceptionally shrewd and talented writer. He managed to smooth most readers' ruffled feathers. Fans forgave Jake and, however grudgingly, afforded him a second chance.
I've just been knocked out of a series by a game-changer. And I can confidently say "knocked out of" because, based on blurbs I've read, this development won't be resolved to my satisfaction.
Here's how I see it. When a reader commits to a series, she sees herself (however subconsciously) as entering into a kind of contract with the author. We all have different clauses in our series contracts, because we all have different requirements for a fulfilling reading experience. My contract for the Liquor series, for example, could have been worded like this: "I will remain a devotee of Rickey and G-man as long as their creator doesn't a.) break them up, b.) pull them out of the restaurant business, or c.) move them from New Orleans."
For me, one of the main draws for Frank Tuttle's eponymous Markhat series was the main character, Markhat the finder. He was wry and reckless and often moody. His only steadfast companion was a three-legged cat, and his BFF was an ancient conjure-woman, an amusing and grizzled crone known as Mama Hog. In other words, Markhat was a lovable loner constantly on the verge of becoming a lovable loser. I adored him that way.
A main character like this in an urban fantasy series is a delightful, refreshing change of pace. Cool, thought I. It will be possible to lose myself in this marvelously inventive world without slogging through any of the romantic bullshit that turns other UF series from crisp to soggy and from unique to derivative in three shakes of a butt.
Eagerly, I wrote up a contract. My first clause was: "I will remain an enthusiastic devotee of Markhat as long as he isn't saddled with a girlfriend or, worse yet, a wife."
What happens after I'm nearly four books into my investment? You got it. Then, to add insult to injury, the author seemingly killed off this "love interest" in a satisfyingly grisly way . . . but brought the bitch back! That book had the most tragic HEA of any I've ever encountered.
The Markhat series game-changer is way too much for me to accommodate. The contract has been breached. From now on, I think I'll stick to stand-alones. Unless, of course, another Liquor story is released. :)