Have you ever been reading or watching something, and just when things were starting to get interesting, you found yourself asking: “What? Why didn’t they do ______?” Sometimes, there’s a very good reason for this that will be discovered later, or the creator made a conscious decision for the character to make a mistake in that instance, or perhaps they were even limited by more practical considerations (in the case of movies or television) like special effects budgets and capabilities. Regardless, these dichotomies, where you think something could have or should have happened, but it didn’t, can be terribly disruptive to a story.
In certain circumstances, this can be called deus ex machina, where the author forced something to happen for the sake of the plot that doesn’t line up with the rest of the storytelling, but I consider that term a subset of a larger grouping of potential writing pitfalls that I refer to as missed implications. What “missed implications” lacks in Latin, literary hauteur, it compensates for in descriptiveness. Missed implications are exactly what they sound like: any instance in which an event in a story fails to fully account for the possibilities indicated by previous events. To better understand what this means, let’s examine Star Wars.
Yes, this post is in part an excuse for me to indulge in a discussion of one of my favorite example questions from popular fiction: why don’t the Jedi use their powers more? If I were ever to write a fan fiction (which I doubt I would, because I have more than enough of my own stories to write), it would be an attempt to answer this question, to resolve the contradictions I see in how the Jedi use their powers in Star Wars. No matter how much I enjoy the storytelling and the world-building and the imagery of that franchise, and all of the implications of its mammoth universe, the way the Jedi use the Force has always bothered me. So, based almost exclusively on what we see in the movies, let’s deconstruct the Force.
In A New Hope, almost all of the Force abilities exhibited are mental: thought manipulation, telepathic communication (from beyond the grave), and what I’ve taken to calling the atium effect. In Sanderson’s Mistborn, the magic system allows you to see a short way into the future by enhancing the processing power of your mind to calculate and project likely events, which is much how I imagine the aspects of the Force that allow Luke to deflect blaster bolts from the remote, and fire torpedoes at precisely the right time and angle. Keep this latter point in mind, because it leads in my mind to one of the most significant missed implications of the Star Wars universe. The only physical affect that we see in A New Hope from the Force is the ability to project a physical affect over a short distance, in the form of Vader choking an officer.
Empire Strikes Back vastly expands what the Force can do to influence the physical realm, establishing the ability to lift and manipulate physical objects from a distance, and the capacity to enhance a person’s physical strength and agility. These are naturally related abilities. We also see further evidence of telepathy between Vader and Luke, and between Luke and Leia. We also learn that Force can be concentrate in particular forms and ways tied to planets and lifeforms, and that it can manifest oracular-style semi-prophetic visions in practitioners under the right circumstances. Whether this is an extension of the “atium effect” discussed in A New Hope would be reasonable speculation, but cannot be established conclusively.
While Return of the Jedi introduces the dramatic ability of the Force’s dark side to produce lightning, it teaches us little more about the Force’s larger nature. For that, we must wait for Phantom Menace, where we see fully trained Jedi in action against non-Sith for the first time. The impunity with which they can defeat battle droids is clearly a combined matter of enhanced physical agility, and an ability to see slightly into the future. Otherwise, it would be impossible to so consistently deflect blaster fire.
No significantly new Force powers are introduced in Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith; everything new is an extrapolation of previously demonstrated capabilities. The new trilogy introduces an enormous array of new Force implications, including healing, matter teleportation, and physicality and Force powers for ghosts, but let’s focus just on what we have already discussed, which is more than enough to demonstrate the idea of missed implications.
No limits have been expressed at any point for the physical abilities of the Force. Quite the opposite: “size matters not.” If size matters not, then presumably the Force is not bound by conservation of momentum, conservation of energy, or an inverse square law. Nor, from what we can tell, is it limited by the lightspeed barrier, since there are multiple instances of Force wielders being in some way cognizant of events many lightyears away as they are happening. All of this being true, Force wielders are consistently underutilizing their own abilities. Yes, a lightsaber is a supremely useful tool, but compared to the fully realized potential of the Force, it’s a child’s toy. The Jedi themselves should be weapons. A Jedi with a stray rock could defeat a platoon. Don’t bother with torpedoes: just have a Jedi crush the reactor from a distance with the Force. On a smaller scale, Jedi could conceivably manipulate individual atoms, affect the cells in a person’s body, cause a substance to spontaneously heat up by using the force on its component molecules.
These are all implications of the explicit Force powers demonstrated in just the movies, and all of them were missed. Now, it’s perfectly reasonable not to explore all of the possibilities of your magic system or some other component of your world-building if you don’t intend a circumstance to arise where it would be relevant, but how many times have Jedi been trapped without their lightsabers? Now, because I like Star Wars, I’ve come up with all kinds of explanations to limit the Force and make it more consistent with what is actually seen, but if your franchise is less successful or established than Star Wars, missed implications like these can be significantly detrimental to how your story is received.
The challenge, of course, is avoiding such missed implications, and in truth there is no plain and simple way to do this. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there will always be implications that you miss in your writing. Rather like anachronisms, it’s probably impossible, or at least unreasonable, to completely excise missed implications from your stories, and you might not even want to try. The trick is to make as many of them unexplored implications, rather than missed implications. Missed implications exist when there is an event that would benefit from an element of your story, but you don’t use it and don’t provide an explanation. Unexplored implications, on the other hand, are extrapolations from what you have established in the story that are reasonable but do not become relevant within the confines of the particular storylines you are telling.
Where missed implications can detract from a story and disrupt the reader, unexplored implications tend to excite the reader, and actually make the story stronger. This is a large part of what authors mean when they reference something like the iceberg theory, where you’re supposed to only include in your story a tiny fraction of the overall world-building, but imply that you’ve done the rest. I think this is part of why large franchise stories like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel have become so popular: they both tell good stories, and leave room for the reader/viewer to imagine more stories in the same world. In a way, unexplored implications allow the story to keep being told, even after the explicit plots have been resolved.