Image: Matthew Loffhagen
A MacGuffin (or McGuffin, or Maguffin) is a plot device common to some of the most successful stories ever written. Your characters will obsess over how to find it, search jungles and alien worlds to get their hands on it, and kill to keep it, and yet many people will tell you it has no place in a great story.
Yes, the MacGuffin is a tricky device, but it can benefit your story when used correctly. To do that, however, we first have to answer one vital question…
What is a MacGuffin?
In the simplest terms, the MacGuffin is the thing everyone is chasing. In the world of the story, it’s the cause of the central conflict, as everyone scrambles to take ownership, but outside the story, it’s a mere device – something that doesn’t matter except to set the characters at each other’s throats.Treasure map, secret formula or lost bloodline – does your story need a MacGuffin?Click To Tweet
The most popular example is the titular sculpture from The Maltese Falcon; an item over which characters lie, cheat, scheme and kill, but which does nothing except sit around having inherent value. The briefcase from Pulp Fiction may be an even purer example, since its importance isn’t even rooted in monetary value – it’s just something that must be possessed.
In fact, the narrative ‘gap’ left by whatever’s in the briefcase has motivated some of fandom’s most enduring theories, with firmly ensconced groups arguing that the briefcase contains diamonds, nukes, or a character’s soul. Roger Avery, who co-authored the script, clarifies that this wasn’t accidental:
Originally the briefcase contained diamonds. But that just seemed too boring and predictable. So it was decided that the contents of the briefcase were never to be seen. This way each audience member would fill in the blank with their own ultimate contents. All you were supposed to know was that it was “so beautiful.” No prop master can come up with something better than each individual’s imagination.
– from Roger Ebert’s Questions for the Movie Answer Man
The Pulp Fiction briefcase is such a good example because this lack of definition is at the heart of what the MacGuffin means to the author and the reader. The nature of the MacGuffin isn’t supposed to matter.
[The MacGuffin is] the thing that the characters – chiefly the antagonists – care about in a thriller and for which the audience does not give a damn.
– Stephen Witty, The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia
If an item is too unique, or has a real ‘function’ in the story other than to be pursued and owned, it ceases to be a MacGuffin. The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings doesn’t qualify, because it has unique and specific functions that are relevant to the plot – it acts as a supernatural corrupting influence, for example, and even has a will of its own. The website TV Tropes offers a two-step test for this very situation:
To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin:
Is the nature of the item interchangeable?
If it is an object of great value there is little difference between a diamond, priceless painting or exotic statue, the quest surrounding it would differ only trivially. The plans surrounding its theft would be largely the same, the mission to transport it to a specific place would be largely the same, the investigation to locate it would be the same, etc. Imagine when reading the script, replace the name of the item and ask if the story is all that different.
Is the nature of the item irrelevant to the plot?
All MacGuffin’s have some extraordinary value, whether it be monetary, prestige, historical significance, supernatural power or forgotten knowledge. These things are often, but not always, explained in detail within the story so that the audience understands the desire. But these elements are not vital to build the plot, any usefulness from having the item is either nonexistent or relegated to the coda of the story and the plot and the desire for the item is over.
If it passes both of these criteria, congratulations: it’s a MacGuffin!
Keep in mind that, as with most terminology, personal definitions may vary. One person might dispute another’s idea of the MacGuffin, since it depends on their idea of how irrelevant or interchangeable the item actually is. For clarity of use, it’s best to consider The Maltese Falcon and Pulp Fiction as offering the perfect references and to apply the TV Tropes rubric when things get murky.
So that’s what a MacGuffin is, but what exactly can it do for the plot?
What can a MacGuffin do for me?
The MacGuffin is often held up as an example of bad writing, as if the item in question must be interchangeable because the author is lazy or unimaginative, but that isn’t necessarily the case. The chief virtue of the MacGuffin is that it offers the author freedom to focus elsewhere. This makes it ideal for stories that are about the process of acquiring the MacGuffin, rather than the item itself.Used correctly, MacGuffins can offer authorial freedom and unique imagery.Click To Tweet
Almost every heist or spy story, for example, uses a MacGuffin in some form or another. Here, the item that’s desired doesn’t matter, and the reader doesn’t want it to – the treasure in the vault doesn’t need to have special relevance in the story, since the story is about getting/keeping/selling the treasure, not what it does. This is something Alfred Hitchcock observed in his own work:
In crook stories [the MacGuffin] is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is almost always the papers.
This can be true in any genre, from sci-fi to fantasy. Why are the characters searching an alien planet? To find the MacGuffin (fuel, diamonds, a rare plant). Why is the young warrior questing deep into the forbidden dungeon? Because that’s where the MacGuffin (sword, crown, magic tome) was last seen. Though the term is relatively new, the device itself is as old as stories, and many myths center on a MacGuffin of some form or another.
Freeing the MacGuffin of plot relevance also allows it to be something more exciting or iconic, like the treasure in The Maltese Falcon. If all you need is something valuable, then why not have a jewel-encrusted bird instead of a portrait or tiara?
In this way, the MacGuffin can offer the author both freedom and aesthetic value, but its usefulness doesn’t stop there.
Can the MacGuffin work as a writing tool?
Sometimes, a story can really benefit from a MacGuffin, but even knowing the device exists could help improve your writing.
Knowing about the MacGuffin can free you to write the story you really want to write. Yes, this device exists and yes, using it is a valid artistic choice. If you’ve been wanting to write a story that hinges on a theft, but haven’t been able to nail the right target, or want a reason to send your character off on a deadly mission but can’t quite figure out what they’re after, then here’s a tip. Instead of the item, simply write ‘MacGuffin’. You can do a search and replace later to swap it out for another word, but for now, write. Plenty of stories are written around a MacGuffin, and if that’s what you need to start your story, be assured that you’re in good company.
For all its usefulness, knowing about the MacGuffin also stops you from creating one by accident. If you’re writing a story where you don’t want to ignore the item that’s motivating your characters, the MacGuffin offers a point of comparison. Could your ‘goal’ item be replaced by anything else? Then find ways to weave its nature and purpose into the story, making it more unique and relevant to your world.Treasure doesn’t have to be a MacGuffin (unless you want it to be).Click To Tweet
This question, ‘how can I stop this item being a MacGuffin?’ is worth asking. If your characters are hunting for a lost will, is there something about its wording or contents that can mesh with your character development? If your MacGuffin is a briefcase full of money, is there something – like the make, or a secret pocket – that can influence the plot in a specific way? If your MacGuffin is a location or a person, how can the in-world details you give about them become more relevant to the events that unfold? Remember, it’s not a lack of detail that defines a MacGuffin, but its effect on the plot.
Choosing your MacGuffin
Whether you’re using the MacGuffin as a device in your story or as a reference for what not to do, it’s an aspect of writing which – like so many others – rewards authors for making informed decisions. Know what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, and the MacGuffin will reward you with either freedom or diligence.
For more writing devices that can improve your craft, check out Your Book Is Crying Out For A Volta – Here’s How To Deliver and Your Quick And Easy Guide To Theme, Allegory And Symbolism. Worried you might be working with a MacGuffin, or struggling to shed the label? Tell me more in the comments.