Tag Archives: movies

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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The Trouble with (Some) Movies

Two action-adventure movies out this summer typify a problem I have with many contemporary flicks.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel” are enjoyable, entertaining movies, for sure. But they left me wondering whether the writers and producers who crank out these movies understand anything about story. They understand the need for action and the need for pacing between the action scenes, but the story to me is always the most meaningful aspect of a good movie.

In the Star Trek movie, the starship Enterprise is sent to the planet Nibiru to study the culture there. When a volcano erupts, Captain Kirk is faced with a dilemma: leave and let the inhabitants die or save the people, but violate the Prime Directive by exposing them to the Starship. He chose the latter, which revealed his character and humanity.

When summoned back to Earth, Captain Kirk loses his command, but Admiral Christopher Pike, who is assigned to take his place, feels empathy for him and assigned him as his first officer. When a secret installation in London is bombed, an emergency meeting is called, but it is a trap and the high command is attacked by a rogue agent. Pike is killed. Kirk is heartbroken, but soldiers on and takes over command of the ship.

So far, so good, but what’s wrong with this picture? There’s a major flaw here. Pike is killed before the movie establishes the relationship between Kirk and Pike. If you hadn’t seen any of the other Star Trek movies (which I hadn’t) the death of Pike would lack import and context. In a novel, there would have been a number of scenes to establish how the bond between these two characters developed and why they care so much about one another.

A second flaw reveals itself near the end of the movie. I won’t spoil the plot, but after Kirk heroically saved the day at mortal personal sacrifice, the dreaded deus ex machina occurred, which marred the ending (for me anyway). I get the old saw, “send the audience home happy,” but come on. Really? To paraphrase the main character, Alvy Singer, in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” “Excuse me but I’m due back on the planet Earth.”

“Man of Steel” does a somewhat better job of weaving in the back story. It begins dramatically with the destruction of the planet Krypton, as scientist Jor-El and his wife, Lara, launch their newborn baby, Kal-El, to the planet Earth on a spacecraft after infusing him with the entire genetic code of the planet. The audience gets a glimpse at his life as a powerful child raised on a Kansas farm. His loving parents learned of his superpowers but advised him not to use them.

Then, through a series of convenient and inexplicable plot twists, he meets Lois Lane. Somehow, this skeptical newspaper reporter comes to believe in him. There is a patina of plausibility to this story, but then the writers couldn’t resist the urge to muck it up with interminable, over-the-top fight scenes that might have thrilled some in the audience, but left me rolling my eyes and checking my watch.

A much better example of a movie where the story is skillfully developed is The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock as a straight-laced FBI agent and the brilliant Melissa McCarthy as a foul-mouthed, but good-hearted Boston detective. The contrast between the two characters makes for tension in every scene. The back story is slowly revealed through authentic dialogue and action scenes. It is compelling, funny, and realistic, throughout (except for the car bombing scene).

The lack of “story” has to do largely with the genre. Action-adventure movies are light on story, while dramas and romantic comedies depend on all of the elements of storytelling one finds in quality fiction writing.

What about you? What’s your opinion of the state of current movies? Do they lack ‘story’ elements?


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Lessons from “Silver Linings Playbook”

Writers tend to watch movies with an eye toward story. I often think the ultimate test of a movie’s quality is whether it would make a decent novel. By that standard, Silver Linings Playbook (adapted from a novel) scores a touchdown—an apt analogy given the main character’s father is an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan.

The best novels create daunting challenges for the main character and this movie does that from the start. Pat Solitano, played by Bradley Cooper, is released from an eight-month, court-ordered stay in a psychiatric facility as the movie begins. He suffers from bipolar disorder and lovesickness as he is obsessed with getting back together with his ex-wife, Nikki, who has obtained a restraining order against him. As if that’s not enough, his father, played by Robert DeNiro, has just been laid off from his job and is pursuing a new career as a bookie to finance a new restaurant. And the father shows signs of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Adapted from a 2008 novel by Matthew Quick, Silver Linings Playbook is at times absurdly funny and at other times dark and uncomfortable for the viewer. In his hopeless quest to reunite with his wife, Pat accepts a dinner invitation from his best friend, knowing his friend’s wife is still in contact with his ex-wife. There he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), who also suffers from bipolar disorder, and they bond over a conversation about the prescription drugs they’ve been given. Their relationship develops when Pat  asks Tiffany to deliver a letter to his ex-wife, and Tiffany agrees, on the condition that she can train Pat to be her dance partner in a local competition.

From there, Pat and Tiffany ride a roller coaster of highs and lows as the viewer hangs on, all the time rooting for them to fall in love. I won’t spoil it be describing the rest of the plot.

Unlike the manufactured story lines that come out of Hollywood these days, the humor and darkness in this movie comes from a real place. It is a place that features the realities of modern life: lost jobs and pensions, family tensions, and mental disorders, and, love and redemption, too. It also features real complications, not clichés. And the acting is first-rate. In addition to Cooper, Lawrence and DeNiro, Jacki Weaver is brilliant as Pat’s mom, Dolores.

This movie was a sleeper, but I am glad it’s been recognized with several Academy Award nominations. If you’re a writer, see this movie. You won’t be disappointed.

Do you view movies in terms of whether they would make a good novel?


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