What is meant by the MacGuffin in stories, who came up with the term, and how do we use it to capture the imagination of our readers and audiences?
No, the MacGuffin is not something you order at McDonald’s. Nor is it a man in a kilt. To understand what it is, let’s start by looking at one of the most legendary film directors in history, Alfred Hitchcock. In his classic, North by Northwest (1959), we witness the magic of the MacGuffin in action:
Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant, is an innocent man caught in a web of intrigue and espionage. Here, the MacGuffin is a microfilm containing top-secret government information.
“The MacGuffin is the narrative device the story needs in order to exist.”
Specifically, the MacGuffin is a term coined by Hitchcock himself to describe an object, goal, or plot device that drives the story forward. But here’s the thing—its true nature is often unimportant. It is a place-holder, a variable in the program’s code as it were, an instrument used to sustain the plot and to motivating the characters.
Zip forward to 1989 when another iconic filmmaker, George Lucas, brilliantly uses the MacGuffin in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Dr. Henry Jones Jr., (Harrison Ford), embarks on a quest to find the Holy Grail. The Grail is a powerful MacGuffin, sustaining the story’s action from start to finish.
MacGuffins come in all shapes and sizes—a suitcase filled with mysterious documents, a precious diamond, or an alien object. What makes them powerful is the emotional punch, plot and character motivation that flows from them. Importantly, MacGuffins aren’t meant to be too elaborate or too detailed—that would risk exposing them as mere devices.
The MacGuffin continues to be a force to this day in games, novels and movies. Take the ring in Lord of the Rings. It is a tiny object that disrupts whole nations and communities, and has them fight over it.
Remember, then, it’s not about any particular MacGuffin. It’s about making the chase and struggle, the development of the plot and characters in your stories, the best they can be.
The MacGuffin is a powerful instrument in the storyteller’s toolkit. Use it to sustain, add resonance, intrigue, and tension to your stories.