Writing Workshop – The MacGuffin

The MacGuffin is a device use by script writers, particularly in action and adventure films, to advance the action and maintain the audiences interest.

The term coined was by Alfred Hitchcock. He generally used it as a device to hold together the first part of his film. What is it? Anything which all the characters are interested in obtaining. In Psycho the MacGuffin is the $40,000 which has been stolen. The pursuit of this money provides the motivation which holds all the characters together in the first part of the film without giving away the whole plot. Hitchcock generally only used it as a device to hold together the first act. Ultimately, Hitchcock said the MacGuffin is just not important ‘It is nothing.’ Who for instance remembers the $40,000 in Psycho?

The Coen brother always use the same MacGaffin in each of their films: money, and it is always a red-herring. In their film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ which is one of my all time favourite movies, three convicts break out of prison to retrieve a large stash of money. We learn later that the money was a hoax, but it keeps the film moving and gives everyone a purpose until the true objective is revealed.

In the film Safe, which I watched last night, the MacGuffin is a little girl who knows something. The protagonist and most of the Antagonists have no idea why the girl is important or what secret she knows, all they know is that their enemies are pulling out all the stops to find her, so she becomes important to them too.  Not until three-quarters of the way through the film do they discover what the chase, and the rising body count, is all about.  A clever script, I thought, and a theme I would like to use in a future story.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas also use the MacGuffin as a device in their films.  In the original Star Wars movie, Lucas says R2D2 was the MacGuffin, which he used to hold the first act together in the classic Hitchcock way.  Spielberg, on the other hand, has a different view of the MacGuffin. For him, the MacGuffin must always be the ultimate prize.  Here the device is used to motivate the characters throughout the whole film.  The best examples are from the Indians Jones Series: in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, the MacGuffin is the Ark of the Covenant; In The Temple Of Doom, the holy stones; In The Last Crusade, it is the Holy Grail; In the Crystal Skull it is the skull. In fact, Spielberg likes the MacGuffin technique so much he is happy to have more than one. Not only will he have an overall MacGuffin, but he will have minor MacGuffins in each act of the film.

A MacGuffin is normally an object, but could be a person, that all the characters are interested in and that propels the action forwards. It could be the main objective of the protagonist and antagonist which drives the action throughout the entire film. It could be a step on the way to the main objective or it could be totally unrelated to the main objective and be completely forgotten by the end of the film. It’s purpose is solely to provide focus and move the action along. It’s a technique which readily transposes to writing.

In Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows you could say that the Horuxes and the Hallows are MacGuffins. They provide the necessary focus and motivation to propel the action forwards.  In my book Gaia’s Brood, the MacGuffin is Eve Swift’s journal.

A MacGuffin can also be a useful fix if you are editing and you realise your story just doesn’t hang together. Is there an object/person already in the story which can be turned into a MacGuffin (even if it is a complete red-herring) or can you introduce one. Look for ‘shotgun’ objects. By that I mean have you focused on an object in a part of the story but not used it – like the proverbial shotgun hanging behind the bar in a western: if it is shown it must be used by the end of the film, but nothing says you need to reserve it for the end of the story. If the pursuit or desire of the object will hold together the first act, by all means use it as a MacGuffin, secure in the knowledge that you are following in the footsteps of the greats.

So when you are next planning your adventure or action story, consider whether you have a MacGuffin or whether you need one. How many MacGuffins do you need? One overall object to provide a focus for the entire story or several steps along the way, or both. How about one to propel a (sub) story along, or maybe a total red-herring?


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