Narrative Techniques: MacGuffin

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at the MacGuffin as a plot device, and how to effectively use it.

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A MacGuffin is a plot device that propels characters forward into the narrative and not much else, such as searching for a legendary artefact or a seemingly innocuous ruby stone said to grant eternal life but that just sits in some kid’s pocket. Writers have been using MacGuffins since before writers knew what they were, with the term only being coined in the early 20th Century, popularised by Alfred Hitchcock—but they have been used for centuries before. Possibly the most prominent is the item that fuels the Arthurian legend: the Holy Grail. In order for an object of pursuit in a novel to become a MacGuffin it is cited as needing to be pointless by the time the reader finishes the book.

The issue that faces many contemporary writers attempting to use MacGuffins is that they have a habit of being poorly executed and have become stigmatised as they are considered unimportant by the end of the narrative. The novel revolves around the protagonist on a quest to find a MacGuffin in the first Act, but by the third it wasn’t necessary all along or, in some cases, completely forgotten about. If there is more than one (sometimes derisively referred to as ‘plot coupons’) then a variety of tropes often follow, such as the first one being found with relative ease or being given like a ‘free sample’ kind of deal.

A MacGuffin can be pretty much anything, but often takes the form of an item, person or place. One could be pushed forward into the plot in a pursuit of happiness, or for revenge only for it later to be completely forgotten about or glossed over as the plot twists into something else.

MacGuffins are notorious amongst fantasy authors, with JRR Tolkien frequently using them in his works. This should come as no surprise after learning that Tolkien himself was a fan of Finnish folktales, such as Kalevala, an epic poem of 22,795 verses telling the story of the Sampo, a magical object that bestows power on whoever possesses it.

As incredible a writer as JRR Tolkien was, he still played with the MacGuffin trope, the most notable of these being the Arkenstone from the Hobbit. The stone, unlike the One Ring in the succeeding Lord of The Rings trilogy, has nothing to it other than its striking beauty and the unwavering attention of greedy eyes. The Simarils from the Simarillion are often cited as being MacGuffins and do indeed act as such to some extent, however it should be noted that the Simarils hold level of power and agency in that they have the fate of Arda (the planet on which Middle-Earth is set) woven into them.

It is with this agency that the One Ring avoids becoming a MacGuffin itself. There are times within the Lord of the Rings trilogy that the ring directly influences the plot, and without its destruction at the end, it is assured that Middle-Earth will perish. It’s this consistency and urgency that stops the trope from suffocating itself within the first Act.

George Lucas is quoted as saying that MacGuffins are important, and that the audience should care as much about the MacGuffins as they do about the protagonists and the antagonists—which is true. However, if MacGuffins were used in this way and less as a plot propulsion device then they’d end up on the same level as the One Ring. The reason they’ve become clichéd in this way is because the author hasn’t cared enough about the MacGuffin and wavered on its importance and consistency in the plot. It means that the readers have invested their time and cares into a device that has no real pay-off.

The intentional MacGuffins are the ones that work, and the ones that readers can appreciate, such as the Dragon Scroll from Kung-Fu Panda. It is revealed that the scroll is blank and that all Po needs to do to defeat Tai Lung is to believe in himself. In this instance the MacGuffin is used as a red herring as well as a not-so-subtle life lesson to the audience.

MacGuffins have been used for comedic effect as well, such as the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While the audience and the characters know the answer, which is 42, no one learns the Question. This MacGuffin stands as an aside, deliberately set out to bother the audience as one never learns what it is and it has no direct influence on anything within the novel beyond its mention.

Another comedic example would be the Holy Grail from Monty Python’s film of the same name. Since the audience never see the Holy Grail, it could be replaced by literally anything and still not change the story—but that’s what adds to the humour of the piece. If this were a serious narrative then it would irk the reader as this, again, would result in no pay-off.

When considering creating a quest-like narrative in this fashion, the author needs to consider why the pursuit is necessary, and whether the plot needs a MacGuffin or the One Ring. Whether the writer succeeds in their ambition depends on what their intentions were. MacGuffins are often slated when an author had initially intended for the latter but had not been consistent enough.

With careful planning, the execution of a MacGuffin can be greatly effective or can be avoided entirely, but an author must first look at their story and decide whether the item is the trigger or the backbone of the story.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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