Have you ever heard of a MacGuffin? Before June 16th, I don’t know that I had ever heard the word. Perhaps in passing, but without having a clue what it meant, it didn’t make an impression. After learning all about it, I can’t believe no one has never explained the genius behind MacGuffin to me. As a writer, I’m shocked I was so in the dark.
Thanks to one of my words of the day emails, I now know that “MacGuffin” is a noun meaning: an object, event, or characters in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.
Moreover, I also know the etymology of the word, which I think is significant enough to share:
The first person to use MacGuffin as a word for a plot device was Alfred Hitchcock. He borrowed it from an old shaggy-dog story in which some passengers on a train interrogate a fellow passenger carrying a large, strange-looking package. The fellow says the package contains a “MacGuffin,” which, he explains, is used to catch tigers in the Scottish Highlands. When the group protests that there are no tigers in the Highlands, the passenger replies, “Well, then, this must not be a MacGuffin.” Hitchcock apparently appreciated the way the mysterious package holds the audience’s attention and builds suspense. He recognized that an audience anticipating a solution to a mystery will continue to follow the story even if the initial interest-grabber turns out to be irrelevant.
Wikipedia better defines the MacGuffin device in terms of character: In fiction, a MacGuffin 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. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot.
A bit of Google searching later, I found some object examples as I tried to get to the core of the MacGuffin: the treasure map (apparently one of the earliest), the list, the cup (read chalice or Holy Grail if you will), the suitcase, the rare antique object, secret plans, letters, the ring –the list could go on forever.
If you do your own Google search, you’ll see pages and pages of movies come up. By now I’m guessing you’re wondering at my excitement over this new writing term. Sure, it’s interesting but you’re not a bunch of movie buffs. Hold on, I’m getting to the really great part. While the movie examples are useful to get an idea of a MacGuffin, I wanted some book-specific information.
That search led me to this superb article, “What Is A MacGuffin?” by Michael Kurland, about how all stories of fiction have a MacGuffin whether the writer realizes it or not. The real takeaways though:
“Being aware of the MacGuffin in your own story, carefully crafting it to meet your needs, can improve the internal logic of the story, strengthen the characters’ motivation, and increase the story’s impact.”
“The MacGuffin isn’t merely the goal the hero is striving for; it’s often also the reason for the overwhelming odds.”
“In order to properly motivate your characters, the MacGuffin has to be something that is plausible and worth the trouble.”
Those are my teasers for you because Kurland’s article is chock full of invaluable information (not to mention examples) that just might help you take your character motivation –and perhaps even development– to the next level. I’m excited to take my MacGuffin knowledge and go through my own stories with a magnifying glass to see how I can better develop my characters’ motivations.
What about you? Was this new information for you or old hat? Do you have anything to add?