I have a MacGuffin. And you want it. You want it so bad, you’ll do anything to get it, including putting yourself in situations you wouldn’t normally find yourself. Doing things you wouldn’t normally do. So what is the MacGuffin? Is it a Scotsman in a kilt? Some sort of exotic bird? A Scottish bird? In a kilt? A Scotsman in a kilt, flipping the bird? And most importantly–will it catch lions?
It can be all these things, and more–if you want them bad enough. A MacGuffin is an element in a story that drives the plot, but that doesn’t itself carry further significance. It’s just there to pull us into the story, and give the characters motivation. Alfred Hitchcock explained it thusly:
In crook stories it is always the necklace. In spy stories it is always the papers.
The necklace isn’t what turns out to be important in the story. The papers, we don’t care about by the beginning of the second act. By that time, we’re too into the characters’ personalities, their behaviors, interactions, and relationships, to really care about the necklace or the papers.
Wait–What’s With The Lions?
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers “Oh, that’s a McGuffin”. The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?”. “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”. The first man says “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers “Well, then that’s no McGuffin!”. So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all. –Alfred Hitchcock
This is key to having a true MacGuffin–the circular nature of the joke underscores the point to the MacGuffin, which is that the MacGuffin itself is not important. If you start out a story with a lottery ticket that the heroes are in a race to find–we don’t care about the lottery ticket (and neither do you). Sure, your characters do–at first. But as the story goes on, you find out that the married couple needs the ticket for treatment for their son’s leukemia, or the trailer-park girl needs the ticket to pay off the debt she incurred burying her worthless husband, or the businessman needs the ticket because he will never ever feel financially secure. As we learn all these motivations and stories–and delve into the character relationships that come from the pursuit of the lottery ticket, we care less and less about the lottery ticket. In fact, it could have easily been a diamond necklace, or a wallet full of cash, or a magic pearl that would bring its owner luck in Vegas. The less the actual object is critical to the story, the closer it is to a MacGuffin.
Now, if at the end of the story, that lottery ticket is the exact dimensions and thickness needed to wedge a door open for the couple to sneak their son in for an illicit MRI, or the exact thing needed for the trailer-park girl to prop up her kitchen table leg, or the lottery ticket has the last known signature of the businessman’s deceased mother–then it’s no longer a MacGuffin. You can’t replace it with a bag of money or a magic pearl, because those items wouldn’t be able to do the same thing in the story as the lottery ticket.
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