Chasing a MacGuffin

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?

This entry was posted in Insecure Writer's Support Group, Olga Godim, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Chasing a MacGuffin

  1. I don’t believe I’ve had anyone looking for a object. Most of my stories have more dreams and goals that people are after.

  2. Denise Covey says:

    I hadn’t heard the term, Olga, but when you point it out, it’s obvious. I’d say Indiana Jones would be my favorite. A good idea to swing a plot around.

  3. Natalie Aguirre says:

    I hadn’t heard of the term either. I love the Lord of the Rings series.

  4. I knew the concept but like Denise hadn’t heard the term. Thank you.
    I don’t think I use anything as ‘sold’ as a McGuffin on the rare occasions I write. Emotive McGuffins perhaps…

  5. I knew the term but I’ve never used one.

  6. soniadogra says:

    Thank you Olga for introducing us to the concept of MacGuffin. I must add it’s as interesting a read as your WEP story, which I had so enjoyed!

  7. Charlotte (MotherOwl) says:

    MacGuffins, a new name for an old friend Thank you. I’ve sure used the occasional MacGuffin in my stories 🙂 An old bestiary come to my mind immediately.

  8. ChrysFey says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever used a MacGuffin.

  9. jennienzor says:

    I hadn’t heard of MacGuffin, but I have a feeling I’ll see them everywhere now. 🙂 Now that I think about it, I probably have a MacGuffin in almost every story I write. There is always a treasure or some object that the characters are seeking. (I write fantasy and mysteries for the middle grade/YA set.)
    Very interesting post!

  10. Widdershins says:

    Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
    Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
    Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
    One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
    In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
    One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
    One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
    In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.

  11. Erika Beebe says:

    What a creative post. I DO use them as jewelry or artifacts as I love history!

  12. cleemckenzie says:

    The MacGuffin in Sign of the Green Dragon is the uber trope, buried treasure. I fancy it up by making the treasure an unexpected one, but it’s a MacGuffin through and through.

  13. I’m reading The Passage series. The second revolves around the search for some especially powerful vampires. Sounds like a MacGuffin! But it’s done very well.

    My daughter has been watching the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Full of MacGuffins.

    Harry Potter? Pieces of Voldemort’s soul among other things.

    It’s a great device, but I don’t think I’ve used it.

  14. rolandclarke says:

    Olga, I knew the term, but found your post informative in a rabbit hole way. I guess as a crime writer I must have MacGuffins hidden somewhere. My detective needs to look harder, I suspect. Her cryptograph? A stolen horsebox? A ghost?

  15. patgarcia says:

    I believe Victoria Holt planted a MacGuffin in her story, The Mistress of Mellyn. It made that story more exciting and memorable.
    All the best.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat G @ EverythingMustChange

  16. Fascinating! I had never heard this term before.

  17. Diane Burton says:

    I love Hitchcock movies, so I’ve heard of the MacGuffin. In my wip, The Spy, the male protag is searching for “something” to take down a crime syndicate. That’s the MacGuffin. BTW, I’m still not sure what the “something” is, but it is tangible. By the time I finish, I’ll figure out what the MacGuffin in my story is.My fav in film is the Maltese Falcon.

  18. Toi Thomas says:

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.
    I discovered this term in a screenwriting class I took. It’s a great concept. I used one once in a story that I’ve been trying to rewrite for years. Maybe I should try a new story. I think my favorite modern MacGuffin in film is “The Book of Eli”.

  19. Loni Townsend says:

    My novellas typically use the MacGuffin plot device, because they’re episodic, dealing with the same base idea: MC is traveling from world to world looking for a cure for her father’s coma, and on each world, she encounters trouble. The first one, her guardian got bit by a zombie so they’re looking for a cure. The second one, she’s looking to get her companions back.

    I like the MacGuffin for my silly action adventures. And I typically like the MacGuffin stories like Indiana Jones. 🙂

  20. cleemckenzie says:

    I’m glad I didn’t miss this post! Late in commenting, but I’m no longer sure of time anyway. I loved the dialogue. As to MadGuffins…they are great for middle grade novels, and I have such fun finding good ones.

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