Apparently coined by screenwriter Angus MacPhail, maybe in the late 1930s, a MacGuffin is a story device that’s as old as stories themselves. Hell, the Golden Fleece is a MacGuffin.
Let’s let Alfred Hitchcock, one of the all time masters of the MacGuffin, explain it in its basic terms…
And he elaborated in his famous interview with Francois Truffaut:
The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very difficult to prove it to others. My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after. Well, during the scene at the Chicago airport, the Central Intelligence man explains the whole situation to Cary Grant, and Grant, referring to the James Mason character, asks, “What does he do?” The counterintelligence man replies, “Let’s just say that he’s an importer and exporter.” “But what does he sell?” “Oh, just government secrets!” is the answer. Here, you see, the MacGuffin has been boiled down to its purest expression: nothing at all!
This isn’t just one of many story “tropes,” either. MacGuffins can be identified in the field damn near everywhere. In “Literary Scavenger Hunts: The MacGuffin & Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Sam Spade, and Others,” Robert Lee Brewer wrote, “Sort of like discovering the matrix, once you realize what a MacGuffin is you begin to see them littered throughout literature.”
MacGuffins fuel the entire stories of two of the greatest films ever made: Rosebud in Citizen Kane, and the Genesis Device in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The One Ring that drives the action of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a MacGuffin that does actually have power, is actually worth trying to control or destroy. A MacGuffin can be a commodity, and not simply a single object, like the spice melange in Dune. It can even be a person. Arguably, Danny in Stephen King’s The Shining is a MacGuffin: the thing that is being fought over. The spirits that infest the Overlook Hotel are trying to take him from his mother, who is trying to protect him. And the list just goes on and on and on: Le Morte d’Arthur, Raiders of the Lost Arc, The Crystal Shard… and the most often cited example…
Cairo rose and bowed. “I beg your pardon.” He sat down and placed his hands side by side, palms down, on the corner of the desk. “More than idle curiosity made me ask that, Mr. Spade. I am trying to recover an—ah—ornament that has been—shall we say?—mislaid. I thought, and hoped, you could assist me.”
Spade nodded with eyebrows lifted to indicate attentiveness. “The ornament is a statuette,” Cairo went on, selecting and mouthing his words carefully, “the black figure of a bird.”
—The Maltese Falcon (1929) by Dashiell Hammett
In “Love, MacGuffins, and Death,” William Flesch wrote:
The genius of movies (and sometimes novels) like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past is that the MacGuffin’s formal status as MacGuffin is part of the plot, that is part of what the noir (anti)hero is doing. Spade or Jeff Bailey are not, or not fundamentally, in love with the femmes fatales (disclaimer: yeah sorry, the movies are sexist, it’s the formal structure I’m interested in). They both know, and know from the start of the main action, not to trust the women they are teamed up with. And they’re barely interested in the MacGuffins, the “dingus” as Spade calls it, at all. Rather they want to understand the crimes that have organized themselves around the MacGuffins. It’s still a question of knowledge. Spade knows who done it from the start (as we find out at the end), but not why. So the forties noirs use what might be called fake MacGuffins, objects the detectives are not really interested in, even in the fictional world, and fake love stories, stories for which the detectives have no ambition or desire for a happy ending, in order to find out the MacGuffin of all MacGuffins, the truth.
To some degree, a MacGuffin is defined as a thing that has no actual value or utility, so that might preclude objects like the monolith on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which does actually act in the story. Still, I would make the case that the monolith serves the same purpose as the MacGuffin that’s, as Hitchcock said, “nothing at all” in that it’s the central object that moves the entire story forward—as is the One Ring, the Genesis Device, and so on. So in some cases, when it comes to fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding at least, the MacGuffin has significant powers and is part of the magic or tech of the world. In other cases, as in the Maltese Falcon or melange in Dune, it subs in as an object of greed—we’re all doing this to get/control this thing.
In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George says much the same thing as part of her discussion of suspense:
If time isn’t of the essence, then a MacGuffin can work for purposes of suspense. This is an object that everyone in a novel is seeking. Sometimes it turns out to be something that’s inherently worthless; other times it’s something of value. In either case, it’s the race itself—the race to possess the MacGuffin in advance of the other characters—that creates the suspense.
So even if your MacGuffin can’t turn you invisible or destroy all life on a planet in favor of its new matrix, and is entirely an object of greed, the more thought you put into how the MacGuffin acts on the characters around it the better. If your readers don’t really understand why everyone cares so much about this thing, your story will collapse on you.
Make sure there is some emotional, personal connection between your villain and the MacGuffin and your hero and the MacGuffin—it has to really matter to both parties (all parties, etc.) for it to matter to your story, even if the object itself doesn’t actually do anything or is never actually used for anything. It’s the desire for it, or the desire to destroy it, that drives your characters through the story.
Like the zombie horde, which is a monster that subs in for an Act of God, or a natural disaster—a mute force that brings out the good or evil in the people who come in contact with it—so the same is true of a MacGuffin. It may well be fair to say that the zombie first created in Night of the Living Dead is a MacGuffin, and has been, in all of its subtle variations, ever since.
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