The first thing you need to understand about MacGuffins is that there are two ways to look at them: the first is the purist view, which would not consider, for example, the Infinity Stones or the Death Star, as true MacGuffins. Others accept that screenwriters, and writers in general, have expanded the definition of a MacGuffin term “plot coupons,” which denotes the thing the character has to “cash in” to achieve a resolution.
This article will follow the true-to-the-original categorization at first, then will discuss non-MacGuffin MacGuffins in popular media and why they’re important too. My goal here isn’t to get you to understand exactly what a MacGuffin is supposed to be, but rather, how you can use this plot device in a way that works with your story.
A MacGuffin is a forgettable plot device that is used as a trigger for the plot. The MacGuffin should be important to the characters, but eventually fade to the background in favor of conflict between characters or some more important issue.
Common characteristics of a MacGuffin are that they will not have any identity of their own, and can be interchangeable. For example, if your hero needs a special briefcase, the reader should not care about what is in that briefcase, and if you replaced the briefcase with a bag of diamonds, it would not change the story in the least. The characters will care enough about to spend the entirety of the movie incentivized by it, but it will not matter to the audience, and the audience may even forget about it.
As educated writers we need to acknowledge that it has lost some meaning. It’s up to every writer what definition you care to accept, but it’s worth knowing what Angus MacPhail and Alfred Hitchcock meant when he coined the term.
Alfred Hitchkcok, who is considered the authority of the device because he used them in his films a lot, defines the MacGuffin as, “the unknown plot objective which you do not need to choose until the planning of the story [is] complete.”
For a true MacGuffin–it does not matter what it is. The Infinity Stones aren’t MacGuffins because it matters that they are Infinity Stones–their powers and purpose serve useful to the story and important to the outcome.
In Alfred Hitchcock's spy movie Notorious, he wrote in the MacGuffin as uranium sand. His producer was not fond of it. Hitchcock’s response to his producer not liking the uranium sand was, “that there was no need or importance attached to it.” Marvel’s Infinity Stones, by this definition, are not MacGuffins, because you can't replace them with diamonds or a large sum of money. Their properties are integral to the plot–they have to be a certain way and do a certain thing.
Hitchcock’s MacGuffin is meant to fade into the background as the film progresses. This eliminates objects like Voldemort’s Horcruxes or Alina’s stag. However, George Lucas, who took more liberty with his “MacGuffins,” with the Death Stars not being forgettable or unimportant to the action of the story.
That being noted, even though the Horcruxes aren’t Hitchcock's MacGuffins, the Philosopher's Stone from book one, is. Harry and Voldemort both need it, but it falls quickly to the wayside as secrets and characters are revealed and only shows up in the end to incite a battle. Even though it can be argued that since Harry cuts off access to it in order to defeat Quirrell, the main point of the story isn’t the stone at all–it’s Harry, his adventures, his friends, and Voldemort's resurgence.
George Lucas actually actively believed that the MacGuffin should be something important to the plot, that the audience cared about as much as the characters did. While I will be discussing Lucas’ MacGuffins too, I have to clarify that these aren’t real MacGuffins. They defeat the purpose of the MacGuffin.
The Crystal Skull from Indiana Jones is another example of Lucas’ MacGuffin where he and Steven Spielberg coined the Skull as a MacGuffin, even though the Crystal Skull has plot-relevant properties that the original, raw MacGuffins don’t have.
The issue here is that they are changing the definition of a word entirely and that doesn’t feel fully honest. It depends on every individual if they want to use alternative words for Lucas’ MacGuffins or just others. There are proposed terms to serve as an alternative for non-MacGuffin MacGuffins, which I will cover later.
The Superhero Movie
The rise of the superhero movie often features a computer program or a stone or a weapon or a mineral that is the desired object that sets the heroes into motion. We didn't know exactly what to dub these, so we stuck with “MacGuffin” even though many of these objects are not true MacGuffins.
These fit the term “plot coupon” much better, and I’d push for a change of the terminology only for the sake of accuracy and the prevention of misconception. It feels odd that everyone learns a definition of this word that is wrong, with more than half the lists online using Lucas’ definition over the original, technically “real” definition.
Well, that’s your history. Now, what to make of it? George Lucas stated that, “the main thing I've learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it very hard to prove to other people.”
Interpreting A MacGuffin
But the MacGuffin, whichever way you define it, doesn’t have to be a ring or a Horcrux or documents–it can be anything. In Hamlet, the MacGuffin is the ghost of Hamlet’s father is the MacGuffin because it motivates his actions in the play. In The Iliad, Helen of Troy’s beauty is the MacGuffin because it incites action. In Saving Private Ryan, Ryan himself is the MacGuffin because the action in the movie is incentivized by the mission to find him.
The MacGuffin is whatever sets the characters down their paths–the thing they have to find. In a thriller or fantasy, a writer must first identify the MacGuffin–for example, the stag in Shadow and Bone and then identify why each character wants it.
The MacGuffin can also be a symbol. Titanic’s MacGuffin is the Heart of the Ocean, Rose’s blue diamond because it incites the search for the necklace–that starts the search for Rose and prompts this story. The theme of love is shown through that rock starting the action. After that, the heart, while making appearances, loses prominence in the story.
It’s important to not let the Macuffin take the focus away from your characters. The MacGuffin is meant to incite your characters–and that should be all it is. Then, the focus should be on characterizing based on how your characters react to the MacGuffin, how far they will go to get it if that is the purpose of the MacGuffin.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.
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