A briefcase full of money. A Persian rug. An Infinity Gauntlet. Even an Ark of the Covenant. These are story elements known as a MacGuffin. Story elements have been a massive factor in movies and television to tell a story, propel it forward, or intrigue audiences. However, the term has been thrown around often, and some people don’t know precisely what it means. That’s why it’s time to break down a MacGuffin.
What is a MacGuffin?
A MacGuffin or McGuffin is generally a physical object. Still, it can also be an intangible idea or force, such as love or power—it can take many forms. They are typically material things that serve as a tool in the screenplay to push the plot in a specific direction. MacGuffins can also divert characters from achieving their goals. Additionally, competition for the MacGuffin can set the characters’ emotions and goals into conflict.
However, it brings characters together and forces the plot into motion. In this way, it’s a focus. If the story lacks, the MacGuffin can provide. Furthermore, a MacGuffin offers a way of forcing the plot in a naturalistic way within the story world. Keep in mind that MacGuffin can be more than one thing.
A bit confusing? Well, let’s look back at some history to understand.
History – The Origin of the MacGuffin
The term ‘MacGuffin’ was coined by Angus MacPhail, a Scottish screenwriter. MacPhail worked writing dialogue for silent films before becoming a “scenario generator.” Later, the screenwriter became a frequent collaborator of Alfred Hitchcock. He commercialized it and used the device in many of his movies. However, the first time a MacGuffin was used in cinema occurred in the 1935 film The 39 Steps. The MacGuffin in that plot featured plans for an advanced airplane engine, and the plot device was used again in 1938’s The Lady Vanishes. In that mystery thriller, the MacGuffin is a coded message contained in a piece of music.
Through time and cinema history, the MacGuffin has evolved along with moviegoers from its original classic Hitchcockian definition to an item or person that garnered care and emotions from the audience.
Alfred Hitchcock stated, “The main thing I’ve learned over the years is that the MacGuffin is nothing. I’m convinced of this, but I find it difficult to prove it to others.” Then the director delves further into his most significant example. “My best MacGuffin, and by that, I mean the emptiest, the most nonexistent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North by Northwest,” Hitchcock declared.
Many film fans tend to separate the Hitchcockian MacGuffin definition from the Lucas MacGuffin meaning. Alfred Hitchcock’s film North by Northwest (1959) exemplifies the former. The movie showcases spies chasing an ad executive whom they believe is harboring secret government documents. Unfortunately, it is never shown to the ad exec, played by Carey Grant, or the audience what the confidential documents are. All we know is that they are essential to the characters.
The MacGuffin is what springs the characters into action. Therefore, the audience usually is unaffected by the importance of this plot device—although the characters care deeply about this MacGuffin and its significance.
The Lucas MacGuffin
Contrary to Hitchcock, filmmaker George Lucas believes that a MacGuffin should be something the audience cares about as much as the characters. Consequently, to Lucas, it is still an object that acts as a plot device. For example, the droid R2-D2 and the Death Star Plans were the MacGuffin in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in 1977. Although The Death Star plans come close to attaining that classic definition. However, they do factor heavily into the third act. The win for the heroes is solely based upon the Death Star Plans to reach their destination.
Other examples of the “Lucas form of MacGuffin” include the ring in The Lord of the Rings, the Horcruxes in the Harry Potter series, and the Ark of the Covenant in Indian Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Cohen Brothers tend to use meaningless objects as a MacGuffin. However harps on their importance to their characters. Burn After Reading by the Coen Brothers features a CD. The whole plot revolves around the disk that the characters are pursuing. The disk contains what they believe is essential CIA information. However, (spoilers) it includes the memoirs of Osbourne Cox. The characters’ goals and plots combine and entangle around a useless item.
Using the Lucas MacGuffin formula, we look at 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. The film has the titular Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon, as the character MacGuffin. Captain John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is tasked with tracking down Ryan. Finding Ryan is what propels the plot forward and even takes the characters on a journey of self-discovery. Another question that might come to mind is, “How do I apply this to my story?”
Making It Work For You
Using a MacGuffin in your story is easy—you must decide whether to use the Hitchcockian or Lucas method. First, identify the MacGuffin in your story. Then, determine early on in your creative process if and how to use it. For example, ask yourself if the plot would be much the same with the characters in conflict with their goals or something more tangible. If the specifics aren’t necessary, you have your Hitchcockian MacGuffin. On the other hand, if MacGuffin’s specifics are vital to the plot moving forward, you landed on Lucas’s method.
Also, it’s worth exploring whether a MacGuffin already exists. Understanding what a MacGuffin is and how the technique was traditionally used and recently can be a great creative experience. Remember, it’s helpful to explore other objects, people, places, or things to put the emotional weight of your film.
The journey, not the destination, is a great way to imagine the MacGuffin. Moreover, you can use this knowledge to launch your script with a creative plot device idea. A MacGuffin is just one of many film tropes and tricks that intrigue the audience and grab hold of their attention. Mastering these skills will help elevate your story. In addition, they can serve as devices as you sharpen your skills as a screenwriter or filmmaker.