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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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Book Review: “Generosity: An Enhancement,” By Richard Powers

Richard Powers, winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2006 novel, The Echo Maker, writes at the intersection of science and the humanities. The reader would do well to have a copy of  Merck’s or the Physician’s Desk Reference handy when tackling Powers’ work.

His latest, Generosity: An Enhancement, published in 2009, is lighter on the science than some of his past work, but plumbs issues of genetics and bio-ethics. With genetics as the backdrop, Powers poses large questions in this novel: what is it that makes us happy and how can we be happy all the time? And, even if we could be happy all the time, would this state of bliss rob us of the essence of what makes us human?

At the center of this story is a Berber Algerian refugee, the always happy, Thassadit Amzwar. She is a student in a college course called Creative Nonfiction, Journal and Journey. Her professor is Russell Stone, a down-and-out editor for a self-improvement magazine. Stone is an adjunct faculty member at a mediocre college in Chicago. Stone’s entire class is mesmerized by Thassa’s sunny nature and they take to calling her, Miss Generosity. None is more obsessed with the young Kabylie woman than Stone. He does exhaustive internet research on the Algerian civil war and the psychological literature, looking for studies on what causes people with such a bleak upbringing to be so optimistic.

Stone consults a mental health counselor at the college named Candace Weld, who is likewise drawn to Thassa’s sunny aura. Stone and Weld become lovers and both are under Thassa’s giddy spell.

Early on, Powers introduces the reader to Tonia Schiff, who produces documentaries on cutting-edge scientific discoveries for a show called Over the Limit. She is interviewing Thomas Kurton, a renowned geneticist who is something of a celebrity, a more self-confident version of the pop psychologist, Dr. Gerald Webber in The Echo Maker. Kurton has started a biotech company devoted to better living through chemistry. Kurton’s quest is to allow humankind to achieve perfection on earth through genetic engineering.

The first turning point of the story occurs when one of Thassa’s classmates attempts to rape her. It is the type of urban crime that may go unnoticed outside of Chicago, except that Stone, when interviewed by the police, uses the term “hyperthermia” to describe the woman, whose name is not divulged by the police. A researcher for Kurton comes across the term during a daily internet keyword search and he decides he must track her down for his study. Kurton locates and arranges a meeting with Thassa and convinces her to undergo a series of tests for his study. Anxious to publish his findings, Kurton refers to Thassa in his study as “Jen.”

In the second dramatic turn, a classmate reveals Thassa’s identity through social media and her email box is flooded with requests, ranging from religious fanatics who see her as some sort of messianic figure to sad sacks who believe she can cure them. Soon, Thassa is an instant celebrity and is invited to appear on an Oprah-style talk show, Oona.

The struggle between science and the humanities is best illustrated by an earlier scene when Stone, Weld and Amzwar attend a debate between a Nobel Laureate and Kurton, the geneticist:

“The novelist’s argument is clear enough: genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to one another and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all. Replace limits with unbounded appetite, and everything meaningful turns into nightmare.”

The geneticist responds:

“Kurton praises the long, mysterious journey of literature. ‘Imaginitive writing has always been the engine of future fact.’ He thanks his opponent. ‘You’ve made a lot of good points that I’ll have to thank about.’ He concedes that genetic enhancement does force major reconsiderations, starting with the boundaries between justice and fate, the natural and the inevitable. ‘But so did the capture of fire and the invention of agriculture.’

“He invites a thought experiment. Suppose you want to have a baby, but you’re at high risk for convening cystic fibrosis. You go to the clinic, where the doctors, by screening your eggs, guarantee that your child will be born free of a hideous and fatal disease. ‘Not too many prospective parents will have a problem with that…’

Thomas Kurton sees only the audience. “Now suppose you come to the clinic already pregnant, and tests show cystic fibrosis in your fetus. Assuming that doctors can bring a treatment risk down to acceptable levels…’

Later in the scene, Kurton addresses the role of literature:

“Russell comes alert when Kurton invokes the use of literature. ‘For most of human history, when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we’re on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it’s time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism.’”

The novelist concludes: “The misery business will remain a growth industry. When fiction goes real, reality will need a more resistant strain of fiction.”

It’s hard to say where Powers comes down on this debate. His skill is that he presents both arguments forcefully and leaves it up to the reader.

Powers is the author of nine novels. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the James Fennimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He teaches a graduate course in multimedia authoring, as well as an undergraduate course on the mechanics of narrative, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is the Swanlund Professor of English

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Navigating Moby Dick

I finally decided to read Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel, Moby Dick and it’s been a leviathan struggle, as the author might have said. Perhaps it’s the long sentences that fill several Kindle screens. Perhaps it’s the liberal use of seafaring terms. When it comes to things nautical, I don’t know my aft from my elbow. Perhaps it’s the ever-shifting narrative forms, point-of view perspectives, or tangents Melville pursues. Whatever it is, Moby Dick has been a whale of a challenge and I’m only one-third of the way through the epic tale.

This isn’t to suggest this book doesn’t deserve its place as a classic of American literature. There are moments when Melville’s writing blows me away. Melville describes the tormented Captain Ahab as “a man divided, seared, and parboiled by the conflagration raging inside him.” That’s powerful stuff. At other times, it reads like a whaling manual.

Melville does a lot of setting the scene for the epic battle between the whalers and Moby Dick. He devotes an entire chapter to the ominous nature of the color white. Another chapter outlines the three classifications of whales, reading at times like a zoology textbook. There is a chapter that describes the wealthy community (at the time) of New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Another chapter is written in playwright style. Captain Ahab, the character around whom the story revolves, doesn’t make his first appearance until Chapter 28.

The sentences are excruciating in their length. Consider this whale of a sentence that begins Chapter 45.The Affidavit:

So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural verity of the main points of this affairs.

In case you’re counting, that sentence weighs in at 105 words. What would an agent say about that one? The reader must endure such prose because the book has so much to offer. At least that’s what I’ve read in various reviews. It tackles issues of immense import: religion and morality, social status, sin and redemption, and one of humankind’s fatal flaws: the desire for revenge. Consider lines like this: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue , if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Or this: “And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

There are few novels that work on so many levels or have been subject to as much interpretation as Moby Dick. Some critics saw it as a commentary on slavery; others suggested Melville was attacking the mood of disillusionment in the middle of the 19th Century. Others viewed it is a critique on man’s vanity. One critic even suggested the mighty sperm whale represented the Catholic Church. Or, the story can be taken at face value as an epic tale of man against nature.

As for me, I will struggle on and reserve judgment until I reach the end.

What is your opinion of Moby Dick? Have you ever read a novel you had to struggle to finish? Was it worth it?

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