Friday, February 25, 2011

MacGuffin

So, continuing in my series of tropes, today we are going to cover the MacGuffin, or MacGuffins, I can never remember if it's supposed to be plural.

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction." MacGuffins can also sometimes be referred to as plot coupons, or plot tickets, because it is often said that this thing is something a character can cash in for a plot resolution. The main point of the MacGuffin, especially in the beginning of the tale it is involved in, is that the major players in the story, whether they be protags or antags, will sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, assuming it is an obtainable object. In order to determine whether an item is a MacGuffin, try to decide whether it is interchangeable. From TVTropes.org:

For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn't matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it.

Another common MacGuffin story setup can be summarized as "Quickly! We must find X before they do!"


There is a relatively famous quote from Alfred Hitchcok regarding this plot device:

"In crook stories it is almost always the necklace,
and in spy stories it is most always the papers."

Here are some well known examples from film and literature:

  • The Wonka Golden Ticket (somewhat more literal than most cases)
  • The briefcase which supposedly contains Marsellus Wallace's soul in Pulp Fiction
  • The gold watch that belonged to Butch Coolidge's father in Pulp Fiction
  • The Golden Fleece from Jason and the Argonauts (not all MacGuffins are gold)
  • The travel visas from Casablanca
  • The Green Destiny sword in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • The microprocessors in The Departed
  • Avatar is pretty shameless in it's use of the MacGuffin, going so cheesily far as to call it "unobtanium"
  • The One Ring in The Lord of The Rings
  • The Silmarilli from The Silmarillion
  • The mysterious sugar bowl in A Series of Unfortunate events
  • The apocalyptic disaster at the beginning of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (a MacGuffin because we never find out exactly what happened, and because it doesn't matter)
  • The Hallows in Harry Potter (the horcruxes would seem like they count, but they don't, because they're actually used in a way which affects the plot outcome)
  • The Maltese Falcon, from the film and novel of the same name, is probably the quintessential MacGuffin (see what I did there)

We could go on practically forever with these, and believe me, I would love to, because it's super fun, but eventually you have to move on to the next blog.

Thanks for visiting! Feel free to share some other examples in the comments. I love examples.

43 comments:

maine character said...

Cool - I always got confused what made one, and now I know.

Like the plans to the Death Star can't be one, even though everyone is after it, 'cause the plans not only affect the plot outcome, but they can't simply be switched out to the plans to Yoda's outhouse.

P.S. Something about this post makes me want a McMuffin.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

So it has to be an object, right?

None of my books use this device because the mc isn't trying to obtain an object. Good to know, though, in case I do write such a book. :)

Anne Gallagher said...

I LOVE the paperclip! Great ad there Matt.

And I always hated that show. I remember the one he used an egg to seal a leaky radiator. I mean, really??!!

Great post. Love the quote by Hitchcock too.

Tracy said...

What's that precious? Everyone wants The One Ring? They can't have its, its ours.

Sorry, I'm better now.

I never realized the MacGuffin as a plot trope. Way to break down into layman terms for us! ;o)

Laura Pauling said...

The hard thing is not making an item like that cliche! Same with any of the tropes.

Em-Musing said...

Is love an object?

Josin L. McQuein said...

Ah the MacGuffin's - Hitchcock's baby. I love his story about the Scottish lions to explain it (the man was a genius with the bait and switch)

I can't remember his name right now, but there was a writer in the 60's / 70's who used to put quotes at the beginning of each of his novels that were written by something like "PF MacGuffin" and tied perfectly to his plots. Every single quote was fake, and written by the author himself -- "Purely Fake MacGuffin"

I think the best "recent", pure MacGuffin story was the last Mission Impossible 3 when the entire plot revolved around the recovery of an object / device no one ever sees or defines.

Bish Denham said...

So like the ark in the Indiana Jones movie would be a Macguffin, right?
I'm learning so much. Always a good thing. Were I not, I'd be dead.

Michael G-G said...

Your knowledge of said tropes is capacious. I doff my pink wig to you.

A McGuffin: so much better for you than a McMuffin.

Jess said...

Another awesome post! I swear, I learn more cool stuff here than on any other blog :)

Old Kitty said...

The 39 Steps! Indiana Jones is always searching for the chalice, the key, the book etc!! LOL!!!

take care
x

Lydia K said...

It's always fun to read about these tropes!
My favorite MacGuffin has got to be the One Ring.

Rachele Alpine said...

This is great! I don't have this device in my book, but it seems like something that you could add into your writing.

Amanda said...

Awesome. All hail the MacGuffin!

Talli Roland said...

Interesting. Could wine be a MacGuffin? (Yes, I know I'm fixated these days. It's been a trying week.)

Carolyn Abiad said...

Brilliant! The elusive elixir is really a MacGuffin... :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Are you going to cover MacGyvers next week?

Amy said...

Love the "plot ticket." Let's call it our "Get out of Plot free card."

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

ooh thanks for this. I actually wasn't all that familiar with MacGuffins so this helps. Also, now i've got "i've got a golden ticket" song stuck in my head.
Annoying? Too soon to tell.

Nicole Zoltack said...

Interesting. I never really thought about this plot device before but it makes sense.

Melissa said...

Is it sad that I never even knew what this was until this post?

....

Oh well! I know what it is now because you explained it so well and I'll be looking for "plot tickets" in everything I read from now on!

Jordan McCollum said...

Once I wrote a guest post for a friend about MacGuffins. I dared to mention that the One Ring was arguably a MacGuffin, and one commenter absolutely refused to accept that. When I cited the TVTropes article (among other things), she said she would accuse me of making an appeal to authority, but that would involve calling a wiki an authority.

(That's not what an appeal to authority is, BTW. The logical fallacy "appeal to authority" requires logic along the lines of "because TVTropes says it, it's true," whereas I was simply citing other people who argued that way.)

There are a few fun MacGuffin generators around the Internet. One is sci-fi/fantasy specific: http://www.warpcoresf.co.uk/mcguffingenerator.php . And I made one a little more general (and silly): http://jordanmccollum.com/links/macguffin-generator/

Matthew Rush said...

Wow. Those sound awesome, thanks Jordan!

Shari said...

Thanks for educating me on the MacGuffins as I had never heard of that term before. I will forever be reminded of MacGyver whenever I think of it!

Tom M Franklin said...

the packaged paperclip made me laugh. thanks.

in reference to the Maltese Falcon, allow me to pass along the Tip o' the Hat to Harper Lee version that was used in an old 1960 episode of Get Smart: The Tequila Mockingbird.


-- Tom

Pk Hrezo said...

Got my MacGuffin all figured out for my new story. ;)

Christina Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christina Lee said...

Veruca Salt here-- you better believe I got my hands on that golden ticket. :-) Fascinating!

Lindsay said...

Great post. Good to know what a MacGuffin is ;)

M Pax said...

The holy grail in Monty Python? At least they go searching for it in an amusing way.

Earth in BSG. Home in Lost in Space.

I learned to never leave home without duct tape from the guy in your illustration.

Clarissa Draper said...

Man, do I never need a Macguffin! I love your list. Avatar - what a stupid name for a rock. Great post...again.

Marsha Sigman said...

Yea!!!! McGyver!!! Wait, what?

Oh...

Despicable Me: The Shrink Ray Gun.

Michael Offutt said...

I would disagree that the Silmarils are a MacGuffin for the Silmarillion which really is a body of work that tells of the prehistory including the fight of the Balors with Ungoliant, the rise of Melkor, the death of the High King of the Noldor at the hands of Melkor outside Utumno, and the dragon Glaurung.

Choms1337 said...

lol I must buy this paperclip it can save my life :D

+ followed :)

Charmaine Clancy said...

Searching my local K-mart for a McGuffin today.
Loved it. :-)

Paul Joseph said...

Have I told you how awesome your blog is this week? Seriously, I feel like reading your posts should earn me 3.0 graduate credits! Great info. as always, my friend!

LTM said...

the Hitchcock device, yes. Did you mention the suitcase full of money?

The girls and I are just starting Lemony Snickett... it's a bad beginning, but I'm attempting to keep them engaged. <3

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Deniz Bevan said...

Hmm, from all the examples you've listed, many from my favourite books, I'm inclined to think a MacGuffin is a stand by for fairy tales and legendary tales. Doesn't seem like a bad thing at all in that light.

Jemi Fraser said...

So interesting! I was worried for a moment you might forget the one ring ... I should have known better :)

Ishta Mercurio said...

LOL! That paperclip was awesome. Great post, with some great examples; you summed this one up really well. And I never knew that MacGuffins were plot tropes, either. You learn a new thing every day.

nutschell said...

wow! what an awesomely informative post. i'm thinking back on my own manuscript and trying to figure out if i have one of these mcguffins...

Taffy said...

Thanks for the great post! It got me thinking today...