The MacGuffin: What It Is And How To Use It
First, a story that illustrates what a MacGuffin is:
In 1945, Alfred Hitchcock was making the spy movie Notorious, which is about renegade Nazis in South America. Hitchcock had a meeting with some studio executives to discuss the plot of the movie and they told him that the audience wouldn’t understand what the uranium that the Nazis are hiding in their cellar was for. Hitchcock told them: “Okay, then we’ll make it diamonds. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as the villains want it – it’s just a MacGuffin.”
Notorious‘s Nazis ended up with uranium hidden in their cellar, but Notorious would still be Notorious if they had diamonds in their cellar, and the script would only have to change a handful of lines. This is exactly what makes it a MacGuffin: what’s in the cellar is not really important to the story – what’s important to the story is that there’s something in the cellar.
But hang on, don’t all stories have something in the cellar (literally or metaphorically)? Aren’t the Protagonist and the Antagonist always in conflict over something or other? Do all stories have a MacGuffin then?
And to understand why, we need to understand something about Archetypes, specifically, the Prize Archetype. As it says in Story Archetypes that Make your Novel Resonate:
The Prize is what the Quest is all about. It can be a person or an object, something internal or external, anything that the Protagonist wants to win, achieve, find or defeat. Whatever the Prize is, the Protagonist must really want it and be ready to go on a Quest to gain the Prize. Remember, the Antagonist must also go to great lengths to stop the Protagonist gaining the Prize.
What distinguishes a MacGuffin from a Prize is that what the MacGuffin is specifically is irrelevant. It’s an object that simply functions to move the story along. The story asks the audience to accept that, whatever it is, it’s important.
So, the MacGuffin is a sub-type of the Prize archetype – all stories have a Prize, but not all Prizes are MacGuffins.
I’ll give a long list of common MacGuffins and examples of MacGuffins later, but for now let’s just remember Hitchcock’s maxim about MacGuffins: ‘it doesn’t matter what it is’.
So, Hitchcock Invented the MacGuffin?
Alfred Hitchcock didn’t invent the MacGuffin – he simply popularised it.
The concept is as old as storytelling. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest story in the world, written four thousand years ago, the Protagonist enters the Underworld on a quest to retrieve the Secret of Immortality, which is basically a MacGuffin. Gilgamesh could have entered the Underworld to retrieve any kind of treasure, and the story would have been much the same.
Does a MacGuffin Have To Be an Object?
MacGuffins are usually objects, but there’s such a thing as a Personified MacGuffin.
The old classic archetype of the Damsel in Distress is a person who is a MacGuffin. Sure, the hero scales the prison walls to rescue the princess, but he could just as easily be sneaking into the enemy’s lair to steal their diamonds. This is one of the many reasons people criticise Damsels in Distress as a concept.
Hostages are another example of Personified MacGuffins. And stories often include prisoners, or innocents such as children, who need rescuing, protecting or escorting from danger, despite not actually being in the story much.
If the Princess/Hostage/Child/Cute Puppy that the Protagonist rescues has very little to do in the story other than to motivate the Protagonist to carry out their mission, then they’re a Personified MacGuffin.
Using MacGuffins In Your Story
So, now we know all there is to know about MacGuffins, how do we use them in our own stories? First let’s discover how to check if we’ve already got a MacGuffin in our story.
How to Know If There’s a MacGuffin In Your Story
This is easy.
First identify the Prize in your story. Then, ask yourself if the story would be much the same with the characters in conflict over diamonds, secret plans or important papers, rather than what they’re actually fighting over.
If the specifics aren’t important, then your Prize is a MacGuffin.
If you’re still uncertain, then ask yourself: ‘If I swopped the existing Prize in the story for “The Top-Secret Plans” or “A Suitcase Full of Diamonds” what percentage of the story would I have to change?’
Your story includes a MacGuffin if a different Prize would mean changing the story by less than 5%.
Oh No! I’ve Just Realised I’ve Written a MacGuffin!
Look, I know you might think a MacGuffin is a bad thing, but relax, it isn’t necessarily.
Although it’s true that sometimes a MacGuffin can just be a lazy plot device, that’s not necessarily the case. When Hitchcock used The Top-Secret Plans as a MacGuffin in The Thirty-Nine Steps, and North By Northwest, it wasn’t because he was lazy or incompetent. It was because he wanted the focus to be on the romantic interplay between the Protagonist and the Love Interest.
Similarly, if you don’t want to concentrate on the external conflict in your story, but to focus on some other facet of the story, then your Prize being a MacGuffin might be the best idea.
However, it’s true that lots of MacGuffins have become clichés. If you can think of a movie or novel off the top of your head that revolves around the same MacGuffin you’re thinking of using, carefully reconsider and decide if you can come up with something more original.
How To Avoid Including a MacGuffin In Your Story
If the Prize has a major function in the plot, then it’s not a MacGuffin.
For example, the Red October submarine in The Hunt For Red October is not a MacGuffin. You can’t rewrite The Hunt For Red October and make it The Hunt for the Red Diamonds, without making it unrecognisable.
Similarly, the Mig-31 in Firefox is not a MacGuffin. Mitchell Gant stealing it and then attempting to fly it from the Soviet Union to the West is the story – you can’t swap the Mig-31 for something else without the story becoming completely different.
Superweapons like the Red October and the Firefox are usually not MacGuffins, but a superweapon can be a MacGuffin, if the Antagonist doesn’t come anywhere near using it. For example, the various weapons of mass destruction in the Mission Impossible movies are MacGuffins, because they have no role in the story except to get Ethan Hunt chasing after them.
In a similar way, prisoners become Personified MacGuffins if they do nothing in the story except get captured and then wait to be rescued by the Protagonist. It’s that lack of agency that makes them a Personified MacGuffin, not the fact that they’re prisoners. So, for example, despite being captured, Molly Ravenhill in A Kill In the Morning isn’t a Personified MacGuffin, because she escapes for herself.
So, if you don’t want your story to include a MacGuffin, then make sure the Prize plays a substantial role on the story.
Do People Really Not Care About The MacGuffin?
The thing that distinguishes the MacGuffin is that the writer could swop it out for something else and it’d have almost no effect on the story, or as Hitchcock said ‘no one cares what the MacGuffin is’.
However, Hitchcock’s idea that the MacGuffin is entirely a cipher, merely an excuse to get the plot going, is not everyone’s opinion. Other authors and film-makers, such as George Lucas, have said that if the audience cares about the MacGuffin, then it raises the stakes of the story and so makes it more memorable. I think what he’s referring to here is Personified MacGuffins, who even if they have a minor role in the story can still generate sympathy in the audience through appealing characterisation.
So, if you can think of a Prize that the audience will care about, that’s probably a good thing.
Some Common MacGuffins
Here’s a list of some of the most common MacGuffins. See if you can think of movies or novels that use each sort. Don’t worry if you can’t – I’ll give examples later.
- Top-Secret Plans/Knowledge
- The Missing Part of the Puzzle
- A Map of Buried Treasure/Magic Ticket/Genie in the Lamp
- A List of All Our Agents
- The Compromising Pictures/Document/Item
- A Priceless Painting/Statue/Ring/Jewel/Crown
- A Suitcase/Treasure Chest full of Gold/Diamonds/Money
- An Awesome Superweapon
- A Damsel in Distress/Hostages/Children/Cute Puppies
- The Thing that Must Be Destroyed
Everyone talks about a few classic examples of MacGuffins, such as the statue in The Maltese Falcon. I’ve tried to come up with some more unusual and interesting examples. And of course, as I write mostly about spy thrillers, the examples are mostly from that genre.
- A document showing the Royal Navy’s dispositions in The 39 Steps by John Buchan
- Microfilm in North By Northwest
- Spy satellite film in Ice Station Zebra
- The attaché case in Rōnin.
- The reason Number Six resigned in The Prisoner
- The Allies’ deception plan for D-Day in Eye of the Needle
The Missing Part of the Puzzle
- An ‘indiscreet letter written by the Kaiser’ (which is in two parts, one of which the Protagonist stumbles upon) in The Man With the Clubfoot by Valentine Williams.
The Map to the Buried Treasure/Magic Ticket/Genie in the Lamp
- The satellite photo in the Modesty Blaise novel The Impossible Virgin
- The Syndicate’s financial access file in Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation
The List of All Our Agents
- A hard drive containing a list of all MI6’s agents in Skyfall
- A watch hiding a list of all the secret agents in Berlin in Atomic Blonde
- The list of all the IMF’s agents in Mission: Impossible
The Compromising Pictures/Document/Item
- The ‘North American Treaty’ between the USA and Great Britain in Night Probe by Clive Cussler
- Diamond studs belonging to the Queen in Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers
- The documents about the Holocaust in Fatherland by Robert Harris
The Priceless Painting/Statue/Ring/Jewel/Crown
- A Monet painting in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair
- A priceless Chinese mask in Entrapment
The Suitcase/Treasure Chest full of Gold/Diamonds/Money
- The cargo of medicinal morphine in The Deep by Peter Benchley
- The Tsarist treasury in Kolchak’s Gold by Brian Garfield
- The stolen money in Charade
- The gold and jewels in King Solomon’s Mines
The Awesome Superweapon
- Uranium in Notorious.
- The Lektor code machine in From Russia With Love.
- The Rabbit’s Foot in Mission: Impossible III
- The nuclear codes in Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol
- Plutonium in Mission: Impossible: Fallout
The Damsel in Distress/Hostages/Children/Cute Puppies
- The American diplomats who need to be smuggled out of Iran in Argo
- Erika, who’s the bait in the trap in Come Into My Parlour by Dennis Wheatley
- The prisoners of war in Rambo: First Blood Part II
- Julius Limbani in The Wild Geese by Daniel Carney
The Thing that Must Be Destroyed
- The rocket fuel plant in 633 Squadron by Frederick E. Smith
- German artillery in The Guns of Navarone by Alistair Maclean
- The Iraqi supergun in Frederick Forsyth’s The Fist of God
- Charles de Gaulle in The Day of the Jackal
- Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty
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