It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
You probably all know what a MacGuffin is. In case some of you don’t, 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 searching for. 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.
Most often, MacGuffins are featured 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. The 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 hatches. Find the bomb before it explodes – how many thrillers come to mind with this one?
What are your favorite MacGuffins? Did you use any in your stories?