Beware the Dreaded MacGuffin

If you are an avid consumer of movies or books, you’ve heard the term “MacGuffin.” A MacGuffin is a commonly-used plot device in films and literature. A MacGuffin is simply something that the protagonist pursues. It could be an object or a person or something more abstract.

Here’s a good working definition from Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person. However, a MacGuffin can sometimes take a more abstract form, such as money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or even something that is entirely unexplained, as long as it strongly motivates key characters within the structure of the plot.

Here’s another definition from the website, TVTropes:

MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It actually serves no further purpose. It won’t pop up again later, it won’t explain the ending, it won’t actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won’t even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.

The term apparently originated in 1939 with Alfred Hitchcock, though some have traced its origins to Rudyard Kipling. One of Hitchckock’s screenwriters, Angus McPhail, used the term, relating an old Scottish tale:

A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.

“What is that?” the first man asks.

“A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands.”

“But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,” says the first man.

“Well then,” says the other, “That’s no MacGuffin”.

Here is a further explanation from TVTropes:

To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin, check to see if it is interchangeable. For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it.

Therein lies the problem with the MacGuffin. Its interchangeability means it doesn’t matter what the writer chooses as the MacGuffin. In theory, I try to avoid using MacGuffins, but, in practice, it’s nearly impossible. A fundamental principle in fiction writing is to put challenges before the main character. There are only so many original ways to devise challenges. The Harry Potter series, which I loved, is loaded with MacGuffins. The same goes for the Steig Larssen series. Yet, in both cases, the authors made them work again and again.

Another form of a MacGuffin is the “plot coupon,” credited to film critic Nick Lowe (not the rock star). A plot coupon is something, or a series of things, the main character needs to obtain to cash in later. As is the case with the MacGuffin, the thing itself is not significant, but the character must have it. The seven horcruxes in Harry Potter are good examples of plot coupons.

So what are the guidelines when it comes to MacGuffins and plot coupons? I couldn’t find any in my limited research, but here are a few ideas. The MacGuffin must be:

• Appropriate to the genre. In science fiction, it is usually something mystical and powerful. In a romance, it might be a thing one of the love interests needs to obtain before a relationship can happen.
• Hard to obtain. If the hero comes up with the key to the treasure chest in the first act, that hissing sound is the tension leaving your story.
• Imaginative and original. Powerful weapons and secret formulas make good MacGuffins, but they are old and stale tricks. One of the things I enjoyed most about the Harry Potter series was JK Rowling’s use of inventive and imaginative MacGuffins. This is easier when the author is building a world, but authors of stories grounded in reality must challenge themselves to come up with original MacGuffins.
• Remember, the MacGuffin is not significant to the story. It is a device—an obstacle put in the way or a mystery to be solved.

My original intent here was to write a post cautioning writers against using MacGuffins. After a lot of thought, I came to the conclusion that MacGuffins are often necessary to create or sustain tension, but should be carefully considered.

What’s your opinion on MacGuffins? How do you use them in your stories?

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