What is a MacGuffin?
Well, Wikipedia defines MacGuffin as… Just kidding.
When you hear the word MacGuffin think motivation. That’s all MacGuffins are. A thing for your characters to chase after. A plot device, usually in the form of an object, that propels the action of your story.
MacGuffins are often mystical in nature. Relics imbued with dark magic that will unleash havoc upon the world. Or, technical wonders that can launch humanity into the future.
Where do they come from? And, why are they so powerful? When it comes to your plot, it doesn’t matter. MacGuffins are important because they drive the action.
Recall the Infinity Stones of the Marvel universe. Throughout the films, we’re never told who, or what created these gems. But, for the most part, we don’t care because the stories are thrilling, and the characters believable.
Let’s look at some other examples of great MacGuffins.
The Lost Ark of the Covenant- Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Indiana Jones franchise, for better or worse, is built on MacGuffins. And, the Lost Ark is one of the best MacGuffins ever. What is it? Well, it’s the Ark of the Covenant. The chest that the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments. Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday school?
Whatever it is, it’s definitely not the kind of relic you want falling into the hands of freaking Nazis!
The Death Star Plans- Star Wars: A New Hope & Rogue One
Ah yes, the MacGuffin so nice… they used it twice. The Death Star plans are beautiful in their simplicity.
Somewhere out in the dark recesses of space is a moon-sized space station with a laser cannon itching to turn your rebel base into an asteroid field. With that kind of threat, what is rebel scum to do?
They send a daring team of mercenaries to steal those plans from a heavily guarded Imperial post. And then hope that a farmboy pilot can bullseye a ventilation shaft like it was some Womp rat back home.
The Rug- The Big Lebowski
The Dude was just settling in for a quiet night at home with a nice White Russian and a warm bath. Then a couple of thugs broke into his apartment, beat the hell out of him and worse… peed on his rug!
From there, The Dude embarks on a journey in search of reparation. Unwittingly, he steps into a world of blackmail, deception, and worst of all nihilism. Maybe that rug wasn’t worth it, but you know what? It really tied the room together.
Okay, so there are a few good ones. Now, let’s look at a bad MacGuffin. Here’s one from recent memory-
Mother Boxes probably have a rich, storied history in the comics. But, in the film, Justice League, they only served as CGI set dressing. Objects for our heroes and villains to fight over.
The audience never gets an explanation of what a Mother Box is. We don’t know how these boxes operate in the fictional world. And, we’re not shown the consequences of these boxes falling into the wrong hands.
But, you’re probably asking…
Should I use MacGuffins?
Sure. Why not?
Some people treat them as a cheap trick, but you’ll find them everywhere in literature and film. And, that’s for one reason- they work. But, they need to be crafted thoughtfully.
So, that leads us to the next question…
How do I write a good MacGuffin?
I don’t have a full answer, but here are a few tips-
Make your MacGuffin a symbol of your theme.
If you’re going to have a MacGuffin, then you should use it to represent a larger idea. A theme you want to explore in your writing. Let’s take a look at the Lost Ark from Raiders.
The ark, in the movie, is a vessel for knowledge and overwhelming power. The Nazis want to exploit that power in service to their evil designs.
In a way, the ark represents the power of religion and mysticism that Indy has rejected through his devotion to academics. Its misuse demonstrates how peoples’ sincere belief in a higher power can be perverted by evil men.
But, let’s look at a modern MacGuffin. The Infinity Gauntlet of Avengers: Infinity War.
We could say this is also a symbol of power. However, the Gauntlet represents more than just power. It is a symbol of an overriding theme in the movie- sacrifice.
Keeping the Gauntlet from the Mad Titan exacts a heavy toll. And sacrifice is the toll that our heroes must pay. Which leads me to my next point.
Use MacGuffins to define characters.
MacGuffins are great at creating character motivation, and driving decisions. And the choices your characters make are what defines them in your reader’s mind. So, let’s look at how the Infinity Gauntlet defines the heroes and the villain of Infinity War.
Thanos, and the Avengers make sacrifices in their quest for the stones. The difference is the motivation behind those sacrifices.
Gamora is willing to sacrifice her own life to keep the power of the Gauntlet from her father. She even asks her boyfriend, Peter, to kill her. In a similar sacrifice, Wanda kills her love, Vision, to try and destroy the Gauntlet. All four characters sacrifice their own love and happiness for the greater good.
In contrast, Thanos is willing to kill anyone who gets in his way. He even murders his own daughter in his quest for power. A decision that masquerades as a sacrifice, but it is not. It is a choice born out of ego.
But beyond defining characters you need to…
Make MacGuffins interesting
As I said before, MacGuffins are often derided as a cheap trick in story-telling. But this is only true if the MacGuffin in question is boring. Its powers vague or unexplained.
We never care about the Mother Boxes because no one explains why they’re important. All we know is that they’re powerful and that the bad guy really, really wants them.
To make a MacGuffin interesting you need to…
Explain what they are, and how they can affect the world of your story
This is the purpose of the lecture hall scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the film, government agents ask Indy why the Third Reich is bent on finding the ark. In response, Indy gives the men, as well as the audience, a short history lesson.
This isn’t just some box that shoots blue beams into the sky or opens a portal for countless alien hoards. It is the chest that held the Ten Commandments. Stone tablets carved from the earth by the hand of God. The audience learns that whatever power the ark holds it is at once infinite, terrifying, and beautiful.
Which is a great example of why you should…
Use MacGuffins to build suspense
The ark is so powerful that in the hands of evil men it would unleash true terror. Someone like, oh I don’t know, Hitler! The same problem is posed in Infinity War. What if a tyrant had the powers of God?
The suspense, in both films, is in keeping the enemy from getting their hands on ultimate power. Each failure of our hero. Each step closer the villain is to their goal raises the stakes of the plot.
If you’ve taken the time to explain your MacGuffin. To make it an interesting plot device. And, to give it real power to devastate your characters and their world then it will be effective.
It will stoke the central question that drives the plot of your story. The thing that keeps your readers turning pages.
That’s the true power of a MacGuffin.
But, what about you? Do you think MacGuffins are cheap or effective?
And what’s your favorite/ least favorite MacGuffin?
Let me know in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter!