28 May, 2010

In Praise Of The MacGuffin

It's hard to have a thriller story without one. It drives the plot, it gives the characters a reason to kill and die and love. It could be anything, anything at all and we call it ... the MacGuffin!

Fig. 1: Featuring Backbacon

No, no, not a McMuffin, a MacGuffin! Hitchcock said it best:

"We have a name in the studio, and we call it the "MacGuffin". It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is almost always the papers."
So, how do they work? Well, it really could be almost anything. It could be something impressive, like an object of imaginable power that moves nations and empires and will change the balance of power in all the world. I call this the "Power MacGuffin". For example the Sausage Elven MacGuffin with Invisible Cheese, pictured right.

It's obvious in Tolkien's story why everyone is after the One Ring. The author sells it well from the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring. Gandalf is afraid to touch it. Effing Gandalf the Grey! That's some serious mojo. And Tolkien doesn't even tell us right off why or how the ring is so powerful. That falls to Elrond the High-Elven Lord of Copious Backstory. (And yes, Dear Wannabe Author, Tolkien got away with putting 4000 words of uninterrupted backstory in the middle of the book. You can't.)

And here's another great MacGuffin, pictured left. It's very similar to the Sausage Elven MacGuffin in power and function except that it's much harder to carry. But the Double Bacon Fried Nazi Cheese MacGuffin does give the wielder great power, and has the side effect of destroying a wielder who isn't suited for it. The Lost Ark also has another great feature common to MacGuffins: in the end, it just doesn't matter. It disappears into a giant warehouse never to be seen again. The purpose of the Power MacGuffin is not for its power to be used, but for the threat of its power to drive plot.

Next up we have the Intrigue MacGuffin. This kind is the necklace or papers Hitchcock mentions. The consequences of having or not having this MacGuffin might be limited to one person--for example that necklace had better be dangling in Lady Bottomfeeder's cleavage at the opera tonight, or else Lord Bottomfeeder is going to know that she's given it to that rascal Captain Doublet to pay for the mercury he needs to cure his crew's raging syphillis infection. My all-time favorite Intrigue MacGuffin is the transit papers in Casablanca. I don't have a picture of them because I'm not sure we ever even see them. They are not an impressive object that glows and shoots fire. What they do is drive one of the most masterful plots ever constructed. The point of Casablanca is the human story and the Egg and Transit Paper Kiss is Just A Kiss MacGuffin is what pulls characters together and drives them apart.

Finally, the WTF MacGuffin. I love this one because it strips away all pretense. The author simply tells you that the object is important, and the characters sell the importance with their actions alone. This one appears in many formulaic plots and can be a Particularly Cheesy MacGuffin. But in the hands of a master like Dashell Hammett, the fact that we never really know WHY all the characters are after it is irrelevent. In fact, it may add to the mystique.

Fig. 4: Yeah, Bogie, I don't get it either. But it certainly gives you an excuse to slap Peter Lorre.

I'm sure Faithful Readers can come up with many more types and examples of the venerable MacGuffin. Like its close homonym in Figure One it can be cheap... but it is filling. It is cheesy... but there's a slice of meat in there too. It can take but a moment to consume... but hours to digest.



  1. If I could figure out how to master that last one, I'd be all set :S
    The key to MacGuffin success, I think, is to make sure the reader understands what the characters risk by seeking it, what they stand to lose or gain by finding it or not. So it all comes back to conveying the appropriate stakes, IMO.

  2. I haven't read your other books, but I'm not sure "Echoes" has a MacGuffin at all. Saving people, both literally and figuratively, is what drives your plot. But the comment on stakes is dead on for a MacGuffin-free thriller as well.

  3. The name itself is amusing. So true though. There are a bunch in Harry Potter, in each book.
    Great post!

  4. Hah! Excellent point Lydia. The Horcrux MacGuffins with Bangers and Extra Cheese come instantly to mind.