Ever heard of a MacGuffin? I hadn’t until a few years ago. Damon Suede is here to explain what one is – and how to apply the same technique to your writing!
Modern readers are not what they once were. In the 19th century, a combination of middle-class literacy and mass-market printing created armies of readers fascinated by complexity and digression. While overlaps exist between film and fiction, the differences are vast and fundamental. Fiction excels at subjective, internal transformation but film favors external action and concrete goals. Hollywood’s output eroded patience, teaching modern audiences to expect simpler, more linear entertainment. Gradually books have adapted to that altered public appetite with regard to subjects and their objects.
Film plots have to be so streamlined and audience friendly that literal objects become critical to the filmmaking process: innocents to rescue, weapons to find, wealth to steal, and marriages to manage. It’s always easier to take a picture of something, and for many movies the exact nature of the thing is almost irrelevant.
Alfred Hitchcock called this kind of overarching story bait a MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is physical plot device which serves as the linchpin of a story’s suspense by providing a focus for all actions, a specific target of pursuit and obsession, visible on screen and concrete in conflict, without agency of its own, which gives characters something to struggle over. Classic examples include:
- The Maltese Falcon (The Maltese Falcon)
- The Philosopher’s Stone, the Chamber of Secrets, the Deathly Hallows, (Harry Potter and… all of the above, notice that the MacGuffins provide the titles)
- The Pearl (The Pearl)
- The Arkenstone (The Hobbit)
- The letters of transit (Casablanca)
- El Corazon (Romancing the Stone)
- The Ark of the Covenant (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
- The Letter (The Letter)
- The Golden Compass, the Subtle Knife, the Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials)
- The Queen’s diamond studs (The Three Musketeers)
- King Solomon’s Mines (King Solomon’s Mines)
- The Archive (The Dresden Files)
- The White Rabbit (Alice in Wonderland)
- The Death Star plans (Star Wars)
- The Holy Grail (Arthurian legend)
- The One Ring of Sauron (Lord of the Rings…although superfans grouse at the notion it’s inanimate)
- Helen of Troy (any story based on the Trojan War)
- Rosebud (Citizen Kane)
…As well as any number of unique weapons, letters, treasures, trophies, microfilms, charms, antidotes, briefcases, serums, dossiers, rings, incriminating evidence, and other pivotal objects of desire. Any time several character in your story are focused on a single visible object which drives and shaping all of their actions you’re using a MacGuffin.
Notice how many of these MacGuffins provide the literal title for the story which features them. They exist to provoke curiosity and focus attention. The other feature of MacGuffins is that they often seem arbitrary, bizarre and valueless outside the context of their narrative. How many of us would be willing to die for the Indy’s Ark of the Covenant, Citizen Kane’s Rosebud, or Strictly Ballroom‘s big trophy for the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Amateur Five Dance Latin finals. Their worth is strictly situational, anchored in community and communal values.
Hitchcock purists sometimes argue that sentient objects like Helen of Sparta/Troy or Sauron’s One Ring cannot be MacGuffins because they influence others, but I’d argue that even if not literally inanimate, a MacGuffin is a charged object with the primary function of focusing the actions of all the other characters. Its function is indirect and intransitive: it only exists to be wanted.
At the same time, even if MacGuffins lack agency, I don’t believe all MacGuffins are inert; they morph and poison, shift and tease. They cannot take action, but their inherent charge and contextual value alters every beat in which they appear with an inexorable magnetic pull.
MacGuffins tend to be more common in film than fiction. Film exults in passive objects of desire: less time wasted, fewer motives to navigate. The same cannot be said of a book. In a book, passive objects of desire go stale quick and fiction affords plenty of room for unpacking inanimate objects beyond simply showing them.
MacGuffins exist to excite and incite action. They are objects of desire because they require a subject to make stuff happen. Think of how many heists, fights, and rescues appear onscreen and how few ambivalence, subtlety or philosophical abstraction. Which is easier to film? For most of Hollywood and its audiences, any story without a MacGuffin is unfilmable and unwatchable.
This has had a profound impact on modern storytelling.
By using a MacGuffin, filmmakers focus intention and attention on something you can capture with a camera. In any story, characters can pursue things that are be abstract, complex, contextual. Because the camera needs something to shoot, abstraction doesn’t work on film and only rarely works in fiction. What a MacGuffin really does for film is make a character’s actions visible.
Authors should harness that audience expectation whenever possible. Giving your characters a specific target will keep scenes escalating and tactics shifting throughout a story.
As it happens, genre fictioneers already have already a perfectly useful word for MacGuffin and although it’s less evocative, our term is simpler, clearer, and infinitely more practical. What Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, most writers call a goal.
All of the character’s actions occur in pursuit of the goal and individual scenes show them working to accomplish it in stages. Goals represent the desirable future. Even if you cannot find a way to make it tangible and interactive, a character goal needs to be:
- Challenging enough to sustain your story throughout its length.
- Significant enough to attract character attention and to inspire escalating risks.
- Relateable enough that everyone can grasp the character’s need to pursue it.
Novelists aren’t usually worried about creating a filmable object for characters to pursue. Fiction is more internal, subjective, and psychological so authors don’t need to automatically resort to the shameless cinematic device of a MacGuffin. In point of fact, most books that translate well into film do exactly that, but MacGuffins aren’t intrinsic to fiction.
Nevertheless, modern audiences have little patience for elaborate or subtle goals. They come by it honestly because a steady diet of MacGuffins has taught them to crave stories that show them what to want, clearly and directly. A MacGuffin is literally, physically visible and a character Goal might not be. Herein lies one of the primary differences between film and fiction.
Since an action is an intentional event which makes another event possible in order to achieve a goal, a goal must be achievable. A vague or unachievable goal leaves your character with nothing to do moment to moment, because they have no clear intention, can take no steps, and accomplish no changes. Their actions and tactics will lead them nowhere in particular.
As Aristotle might say, will this character’s actions lead to happiness? The goal is the form that happiness takes, and because it is abstract, it shares many fundamental characteristics of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. Like a MacGuffin, a goal…
- only exists to be wanted and has no agency.
- cannot directly affect the character.
- provides a source of energy for the character.
- focuses all of the character’s actions.
- derives its value from context.
- points characters in a direction.
What a character wants gives their action and tactics a trajectory. For plotters that makes your outline a snap, and for pantsers it gives you a solid point upon which to riff.
The risk attached to the goal determines the stakes: if the character succeeds in achieving the goal, happiness results; if the character fails, unhappiness results. Failure must be at least as possible as success, if not more so. Give them a goal worth risking everything to accomplish and worth ruining their lives for should things go wrong and you’ll keep your readers on the hook till the final page.
Join us next week for more RU! =)
Bio: Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.