There are few writing tropes as controversial as the MacGuffin. Some think it’s a second-rate prop for bad writing. Others see it as a solid literary device that efficiently builds plot momentum. The truth is, both opinions are right. The difference lies in whether the MacGuffin used in the story is weak or strong.
It’s easy to create a weak MacGuffin, but it’s even easier to write a strong MacGuffin that’ll add excitement and movement to your next novel, screenplay, short story, or video game script. Let’s find out how to do it.
What is a MacGuffin?
Have you ever been watching a movie or TV show, reading a book, or playing a video game and suddenly the characters absolutely, positively must get their hands on a “thing,” like a magic ring, rare jewel, mysterious letter or lost book? But, when you stop to think about it, the “thing” could just as easily have been a magic goblet, rare painting, mysterious treasure map or lost dog, and the plot wouldn’t change at all?
That “thing” is a plot device known as a MacGuffin.
Within the world of a story, a MacGuffin represents a tangible goal that steers the plot in a certain direction. It takes the form of a specific object that the protagonist or another major character wants to get his or her hands on. All MacGuffins are important to the characters for some reason, but the reason for this importance isn’t always made clear. When this happens, it’s a weak MacGuffin and can be a sign that the storytelling, too, is weak.
Strong MacGuffins, on the other hand, have clear, significant worth — magical powers, a high dollar-value, the ability to solve an insoluble problem, or the potential to cause great destruction — which is plainly explained within the narrative and distinctly demonstrated by the plot.
Even so, neither the object nor its worth are vital to the plot in and of themselves. Whether the hero gets the specific “thing” or not doesn’t matter; it’s the act of trying to obtain it — the quest, chase, journey, rescue mission or hunt — that drives the story. The characters could just as well stop seeking the current MacGuffin to go after a new one with a similar worth, and there’d be no change in the dramatic arc.
The term “MacGuffin” was popularized by filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock in the early 20th century. Regarding the origin of this rather peculiar word, he’s quoted as having stated:
“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?’
And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.’
The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’
‘Well,’ the other 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,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’
So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.”
As a storytelling device, MacGuffins are very, very popular; there are too many MacGuffins in the literary, cinematic, theatrical, and gaming canon to count, in fact. Here are a few of the most famous:
- The Maltese Falcon from the film and book of the same name
- The briefcase from Pulp Fiction
- The sled (“Rosebud”) from Citizen Kane
- Princess Peach from the original Super Mario Bros. video game
- The Holy Grail from Le Morte d’Arthur, the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail
- The Golden Fleece from Greek mythology
- The Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark
- The rug from The Big Lebowski
As we can see, MacGuffins are concrete, physical objects that spur characters to pursue an external goal. They aren’t abstract concepts, like revenge or love, that represent the character’s true motivation or the theme of the story.
In the end, a MacGuffin is just a “thing” and nothing more.
How to write a MacGuffin
A MacGuffin doesn’t have to be a cheap gimmick to get the plot moving. These four tips will help you create an effective, compelling MacGuffin.
1. Make it memorable and desirable
We’re not talking about yet another generic ancient scroll, run-of-the-mill chest of gold coins, or invisible computer file. To create a strong MacGuffin, you need to come up with an object that’s specific, visually interesting, and remarkable in some way, like the cryptic, stern-visaged Maltese Falcon or the gorgeous sapphire and diamond Heart of the Ocean necklace from the movie Titanic.
Making the object desirable to the audience as well is helpful. The allure of an expensive, exquisite necklace like the Heart of the Ocean is nearly universal. The seemingly plain Maltese Falcon is, in reality, made of gold and jewels hidden under a thick coating of black enamel. And the Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant from the Indiana Jones movies are simultaneously archeological and religious treasures, making their preservation essential.
2. Urgency and motivation
So, the hero doesn’t find the secret key, discover the hidden city, or locate the missing necklace?
If this is your reader’s or viewer’s reaction, you’ve got a weak MacGuffin on your hands.
The Holy Grail in the King Arthur legends falls into this category. It’s memorable and desirable (a visually interesting, holy, and supremely powerful object), but if the Knights of the Round Table don’t find it, so what? Nothing changes in terms of the plot whether they have it or not — King Arthur has no precise plans for it, there’s no danger of it falling into the wrong hands, and it’s not having any impact (good or bad) on the characters while it’s residing in its undisclosed location.
This issue is subverted in the 1989 movie about a modern quest for the Holy Grail, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In this case, the MacGuffin is exactly the same, but it’s strong rather than weak. If the hero, Indiana Jones, can’t get the all-powerful Holy Grail, the Nazis will. And if that happens, the world as we know it will end. Indiana is highly motivated to get the MacGuffin, and there will be significant consequences if he fails.
High stakes for obtaining — or not obtaining — the object of desire are key to a strong MacGuffin.
Bonus points: Give the protagonist a secondary, personal reason why he or she must acquire the MacGuffin. If they don’t succeed, not only will there be an undesirable external consequence, but an equally dire internal (emotional) outcome will occur, such as a loss of faith, self-esteem, or worth in their community. If your characters don’t have something personal at stake, what’s keeping them going as they search for the MacGuffin?
3. When they’ve got it, you’ll know
What significant, unmistakable change will occur in the story when the protagonist finally gets the MacGuffin in their hot little hands? If you can’t answer that question, you’ve got yourself a weak MacGuffin.
The acquisition (or loss) of the MacGuffin should represent a major turning point, or even the climax, of the plot.
4. Conflict is key
Don’t just send your protagonist on a quest to find the MacGuffin … send the antagonist, too.
“It allows you do one of the greatest tricks for creating conflict — what I call, two dogs, one bone. Two or more characters want this thing, but only one can have it. With a MacGuffin,” writes Lori Devoti, someone MUST lose.”
Though the protagonist and antagonist share an identical MacGuffin-gettin’ goal, the outcomes will be polar opposites depending on who succeeds. This, in turn, will greatly increase the stakes of your plot.
I included a MacGuffin in my novel, The Cure for Summer Boredom. It’s memorable (a copy of a 1990s Playboy magazine) and desirable (well, for the character who wants it, at least!) The character is highly motivated to get it back from the strange library in which it’s been locked away for years, and there’s a strong conflict between his desire to retrieve it and the librarians’ desire to keep him away from it.
But what will happen when he gets (or fails to get) the magazine?
Check it out and let me know on Twitter if you think it’s a weak or strong MacGuffin.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.