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Excerpt: What Is A McGuffin?
By Michael Kurland

The Care and Feeding of a MacGuffin
By Michael Kurland

Alfred Hitchcock told it something like this:

Two men were riding on a train in Scotland. One turned to the other and said, “What's in that black box on the luggage rack?”

“A MacGuffin,” the other replied. 

“What does it do?” 

“It catches lions on the Scottish highlands.” 

“But there are no lions on the Scottish highlands,” the man protested. 

“Oh? Then that's no MacGuffin.” 

That was as close as Hitchcock ever came to explaining where the term MacGuffin came from; as far as anyone can tell, he made it up. He used it to describe the linchpin of the mystery, detective, or suspense story; the motivating or primal force behind the narrative. Not the motive itself, but the gizmo, situation, or event that lies behind the motive. And a useful term it is. Over the past sixty years writers, particularly mystery writers, have adopted it as their own. But it deserves a wider appreciation and a greater understanding. The more you examine the idea the more you will find that it describes a powerful narrative device found in most, if not all, fiction. Many writers don't even realize that they have a MacGuffin in their story, but it's there, nonetheless. 

Is it possible to write a story, even a mystery story, without a MacGuffin? 

Certainly. It's possible to build a two-masted schooner without a keel, but the ship will be much harder to sail and may be prone to rolling over unexpectedly. Besides, even if the MacGuffin is never brought on stage, the odds are that it's there, hovering around just out of sight, directing the actions of the main characters and snickering in the wings. 

Being aware of the MacGuffin in your own story, carefully crafting it to meet your needs, can improve the internal logic of the story, strengthen the characters' motivation, and increase the story's impact.

Hitchcock once described the MacGuffin as: 

The device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after... The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they're of no importance whatsoever.

It might seem like he's denigrating the value of his discovery, but remember that, as director, he came in after the writer had done his job. Everything always seems easier after the writer has done his job. And it took a good writer to build the structure of the MacGuffin in to the plots so well that Hitchcock could ignore it and get on with making plot-based movies with powerful MacGuffins like Rear Window, The Thirty Nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Strangers on a Train.

Let's take a look at the particular MacGuffin in one of the most famous mysteries ever written, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, and see what it is, why it's needed, and how it's used. The plot involves murder, mayhem, romance, and deceit in San Francisco in the 1920s, and introduces Sam Spade, the PI from whom a whole school of particularly American private detectives has evolved. The MacGuffin in the story is the eponymous Maltese Falcon, the statuette of a bird about twelve inches high covered with black enamel. And under the enamel is…well, as Casper Gutman, Hammett's original fat man, tells Spade in the novel:

“Mr. Spade, have you any conception of how much money can be made out of that black bird?”

“No.”

“Well, sir, if I told you—by Gad, if I told you half!—you'd call me a liar.”

And a chapter later Gutman does tell him, spending over two thousand words in the telling. It seems, to abbreviate the long and lovely story, that a foot-high solid gold falcon encrusted with precious gems from beak to claw was crafted in 1530 at the order of Villiers de l'isle d'Adam, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, as a gift to Emperor Charles V. The gift was lost at sea, found and then lost again, passing from hand to hand and, somewhere along the way, covered with black enamel to conceal its value.

Gutman could have just said, “Black bird; worth a lot of money.” Why two thousand words? Because if the bird isn't rare, and romantic, and incredibly valuable, why would Gutman spend seventeen years of his life hunting for it? Why not just rob a bank? Half a dozen people die pursuing or protecting the black bird, and Hammett had to make you, the reader, believe that the object was worth the blood spilled for it.

That's a MacGuffin! 

The motive was greed, the MacGuffin was the object that inspired the greed.

In many narratives, the object is physical: a black bird, a rare manuscript, a one-of-a-kind postage stamp, an atomic warhead, an inheritance, the Naval treaty. But it can be something intangible, like Communism or Freedom or winning an ice skating contest. It can be an ideal or a hatred or a delusion, or the orders of your superior officer. “Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die.” Like that.

The MacGuffin motivates the story, and it matters not to the MacGuffin whether it be the villains or the heroes that do the moving. In The Maltese Falcon, the black bird motivates Gutman, the villain; but in Dorothy Sayers' Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey, the hero, is motivated by a sudden and overwhelming infatuation with Harriet Vane, who, when he first sees her, is standing in the dock accused of murder. The MacGuffin is love. Sure, the actual murderer is motivated by greed, but his greed doesn't move the plot forward; Wimsey's need to prove Vane innocent does.

A few more examples before we move on:

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the MacGuffin is the tale told by the ghost of Hamlet's father. Dad's ghost appears to Hamlet one windy night on the battlements of Castle Elsinore and tells him that Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, murdered his father and married his mother to become king. All else follows from the beseeching of this vengeful spirit.

On the other hand, in Shakespeare's Henry V what King Henry wants is France. The whole country. Now there's a MacGuffin with size and majesty. And a lot of good wine. 

In Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, you might think the MacGuffin is Rebecca herself, but we can pin it down finer than that. The MacGuffin is the death of Rebecca. Or, even more precisely, the question as to how she died.

In the movie Casablanca, the MacGuffin is not the love affair between Rick and Ilsa, but an envelope containing several irrevocable “letters of transit” that can be used to escape to a neutral country. The plot circles around those letters, and their existence motivates the action and causes several deaths.

In Homer's Iliad, the MacGuffin was Helen of Troy's great beauty; “...the face that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium,” as Marlowe put it. In real life, the Trojan War was probably fought over land, or trade routes; but that doesn't make nearly as satisfying a story.

The simple truth is that somebody has to be after something, and some force—human, animal, or elemental—has to be in his or her way, or there's no story. One of the most basic of plots has been aphorized as, “an appealing hero strives against overwhelming odds to achieve a worthwhile goal.”

The MacGuffin isn't merely the goal the hero is striving for; it's often also the reason for the overwhelming odds. Sam Spade's partner gets murdered because the bad guys want the raven. Rick is forced into action, and becomes a hero, because the bad guys want to prevent the letters of transit from being used.

In order to properly motivate your characters, the MacGuffin has to be something that is plausible and worth the trouble. Bad guys don't ordinarily go around killing people and causing mayhem just to prove that they're bad guys. They have some goal in mind. It might be an insane goal, but there's got to be some reason for what they do. In real life, of course, we don't always learn the reason. But in a mystery story we should. After all, one of the main pleasures in reading a mystery story is knowing that, in the end, the mystery is going to be solved.

So how do we go about selecting—or contriving—a MacGuffin that will add just the right touch of importance, verisimilitude, and mystery to your story? Let's examine some of the considerations that might direct your choice: 

Your MacGuffin should fit the needs of your plot and the desires of your characters.

The more elaborate the MacGuffin, the more complex your characters will have to be, as they will have to be the sort of people who would respond to the complexities of the MacGuffin. The plot itself, however, can be very elaborate with even the most straightforward MacGuffin. If, for example, the story is a bank robbery, the MacGuffin is probably the money or whatever is in the bank. And yet the details of the planning and execution of the robbery can have the convolutions of a schizophrenic pretzel. Remember that the MacGuffin underlies the motive and, as Marie Rodell explained while writing about murder stories in Mystery Fiction: Theory and Technique:

The fear of punishment and of condemnation is a strong fear, and if the motive is to be believable, it must be stronger than these. The consequences of failing to murder must seem legitimately as dreadful to the murderer as capital punishment and/or eternal damnation, if his choice of murder is to appear plausible to the reader.The MacGuffin should seem real to the reader, or at least be able to evoke the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. And it should be powerful enough to plausibly account for what happens in its pursuit.

In Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs, the MacGuffin is the kidnapped senator's daughter. Sure there was a serial killer at work before the senator's daughter was kidnapped, and sure the FBI was doing its collective best to catch him, but the intensity of the action and some of the major plot points, like taking Hannibal Lector out of his extra-secure cell, wouldn't have happened were it not a senator's daughter who went missing.

The relationship between characters and MacGuffin must not violate the internal consistency of your story.

As J.R.R. Tolkein pointed out years ago, in his essay in the book Tree and Leaf, the fiction writer is the creator of an alternate universe that, even though it exists only on paper, must remain internally consistent if the reader is to believe in it. That means that not only must the MacGuffin not change during the course of the story (except, perhaps, by the introduction of a new and stronger MacGuffin), but the characters’ attitudes toward it should not change unless forced to by events in the story. If Lysander, who couldn't stand Helena yesterday, falls blindly in love with her today, he'd better have had his eyes sprinkled with fairy dust, and we'd better have seen the sprinkling.

Your MacGuffin must not seem false or artificial to your reader.

Of course all fiction is artifice, but the reader doesn't want to see the strings or even know they’re there. She will avert her eyes from the little man behind the curtain with the slightest encouragement if you let her. This means, curiously enough, that the stranger or more obscure the MacGuffin, the more attention that must be drawn to it. If the MacGuffin is a bank to be robbed, and greed is the motive, you've explained it enough. Your reader understands greed, and has met with it before. But if the MacGuffin is, oh for example, the statue of a bird, you'd better spend some time explaining why anyone would care about it. If the MacGuffin is an attitude; someone blows up abortion clinics because of his intense feelings about abortion and a large dose of homicidal mania the reader will believe it because she knows of such things.

But if the villain is killing people who carry red balloons in the park, you'd better explain and justify (however insanely) his hatred of red balloons.

This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.
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