Recently, I was watching a movie with my oldest son, and we realized after watching it that the main thing they were searching for through most of the movie was pointless. It was basically a plot device to give the characters something to do. In other words, it was a MacGuffin.
Here's the definition: A MacGuffin is something necessary for the plot and characters of a story, but it serves no greater purpose for the story itself.
In the movie I watched, the MacGuffin was supposed to be the one thing needed to help the protagonists defeat the antagonist. Eventually, it's proven that the MacGuffin is useless, and they defeat the antagonist using what they had with them the entire time.
Examples of MacGuffins
MacGuffins are used throughout storytelling. Let's look at a few examples:
- Harry Potter series. Every Harry Potter novel title follows the same format: Harry Potter & the (MacGuffin), whether it's the chamber of secrets, prisoner of Azkaban, or the deathly hallows.
- Indiana Jones series. Sharp writers will notice that the Indiana Jones movies follow the same titling convention—Jones pairs up with the ark of the covenant, temple of doom, and holy grail.
- James Bond series. 007 is constantly searching for some new bad guy who has some new weapon that will wreak some new havoc. But readers really just like following around Bond.
- Star Wars series. The very first movie of this series is titled A New Hope; the most recent is titled The Last Jedi. In both cases, the subject of the title is a MacGuffin within the bigger story.
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy. First making an appearance in The Hobbit, the ring of power serves no other purpose than to start wars, disputes, and keep the plot moving.
- The Maltese Falcon. This classic detective story includes the MacGuffin in the title of the novel, which was something its author often did...because it works.
Sort of like discovering the matrix, once you realize what a MacGuffin is you begin to see them littered throughout literature.
Create More Compelling Stories!
Discover how the seven core competencies of storytelling—concept, character, voice, plot, theme, scene construction, and style—combine to create compelling narrative. By understanding the engineering and design of a story, you’ll learn how to quickly and effectively get your story out of your head and onto the page.
During this online course, writers will learn how to create a great concept guaranteed to excite reader interest; the three basic character types and how to use them to build stakes and suspense; why voice may be the most important component of your story; how to use the three-act structure to plot your story; and so much more!
Is the MacGuffin a Cheap Trick or a Literary Device?
In some ways, a MacGuffin is all things. It is a cheap trick for propelling a story along, but it's also a very useful literary device. If the story is good and the characters are compelling, readers will forgive and even appreciate that the author used a MacGuffin. If things are not fleshed out and developed, the author runs the risk of making the reader feel cheated or manipulated.
So go ahead and use MacGuffins in your own stories. They're fun and effective literary devices, but remember that they're not what's most important in your story. Rather, it's the emotional journey of your characters and the ride your reader takes with them.