Tag Archives: Stieg Larssen

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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It’s the Time of the Season for Writing

Autumn in New England



The days shorten, the temperature drops. It’s turned colder in the Northeastern United States. Leaves are falling and winter will be here soon. It’s actually snowing as I write this post. It’s the time of the season for writing.

I don’t know about you, but I am at my most productive as a writer during the autumn and winter seasons. The days are shorter and it’s a great time to sit before the laptop and pound out a new story. I’m at my least productive during those bright summer months, when the beach beckons and there’s fun, fun, fun in the sun.

This post assumes that you are a writer with a full-time job. Full-time fiction writers often carve out four or five hours during the day to write and if I could afford to quit my day job, that’s what I would do.

I could not find any studies or articles on the impact of weather on fiction writing. There’s a certain logic to the theory that writers are more productive during periods of short days and inclement weather. If you can’t go outside, what better indoor activity is there than writing? Maybe that’s why Stieg Larssen was able to crank out the three books that comprise the best-selling millennium trilogy. There’s little sunlight during the dark winter months in his native Sweden.

I wrote 80 percent of the first draft of my first novel, Small Change, during the fall of 2007. It took me another six months to finish the first draft.

I’m also a more productive writer at night. Prime time for me is nine o’clock to midnight. A lot of writers say the only time they can get some uninterrupted peace to write is in the early morning. Some writers keep a faithful schedule of writing from four-thirty in the morning until whenever they have to get to work. I just can’t write in the early morning hours, probably because I’m barely awake. I don’t know about you, but
it takes a hot shower and a strong cup of coffee to get the old brain working in the morning.

Summer is a tough time for me to write. There are too many distractions and too much to do. It’s tough to pound away at the keyboard when the sun is shining and everybody’s outside enjoying themselves at the beach, pool, or the park. I did write a good portion of the first draft of my second novel, Color Him Father, from April through September, but I did most it late at night.

How about you? Is there any season when you are more productive as a writer? What about time of day? Are you a morning writer? An evening writer? Or does it matter?



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