Monday, August 4, 2014

What is a MacGuffin?

You probably all know the answer to this question. In case some of you dont, this is a quick intro into one of the oldest medicines for the writer’s block -- a MacGuffin, a band-aid for a stumbling story. Since ancient Babylon, writers and playwrights used MacGuffins to infuse their narratives with danger and excitement.
A MacGuffin is a fictional plot device, usually an object, or sometimes a person, everyone in the story is chasing. MacGufffins drive the plots, as both the protagonist and the antagonist compete to find them first. For that reason, MacGuffin stories are easy to write. The motivations of the protagonist as well as the conflict are already embedded in the trope. 
MacGuffins are most often placed in action adventure stories: thrillers, mysteries, speculative fiction. Examples include a treasure map or a cake recipe, a priceless jewel or a top secret spy file, a weapon’s prototype or a rare statue. One Ring in The Lord of the Rings is a MacGuffin. So is the Aladdin’s magic lamp. Indiana Jones in the eponymous movie enterprise usually pursues his MacGuffins with great resourcefulness and determination.
The etymology of the term is uncertain, but most attribute it to Alfred Hitchcock. He used MacGuffins inventively in some of his movies. He illustrated the term by an anecdote about two men on a train:

One man says, “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”
The other replies, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.”
The first one asks, “What’s a MacGuffin?”
“Well,” the second man says, “it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.”
The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.”
The other one answers, “Well then, that’s no MacGuffin.”

The actual nature of a MacGuffin is unimportant to the story. What matters is the hunt and the struggles. Adding an expiration date to the MacGuffin’s properties is another tool writers use to crank up the tension. Find the dragon egg before it hatched. Find the bomb before it explodes – how many thrillers come to mind with this one?
In my novels, I didn’t use MacGuffins, but I employed several of them in my collection of short stories Squirrel of Magic. In the story A Witching Spree, it’s a suitcase. In the story Find the Rogue, it’s an untrained magician. Both MacGuffins have a metaphorical ticking clock – they must be found by a certain time, or it might be too late.  
What are your favorite MacGuffins? Did you use any in your stories?

Olga Godim


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

A whole new approach to me, I love it! The missing link.

Liz Fountain said...

Wonderful explanation - right now my MacGuffin is the next completed MS. I think I need to put a ticking time bomb on it to make sure I get the thing done!


Big Mike said...

Lord, you learn something new everyday. Never heard that designation used before.

Michael Davis (
Author of the Year (2008 and 2009)
Award of Excellence (2012)