Monthly Obscure Trope Series — The MacGuffin

It can be strange to discuss the “mechanics” of a story. Main characters, side plots, motivations, arcs, tropes, plot devices… It almost seems taboo to break a story down into building blocks. It can seem too simplistic. To me, that’s one of the neat things about storytelling, that even using a similar set of blocks can result in wildly different stories. 

I preface with that because today we’re talking about a very broad trope, called the MacGuffin. It’s an object or thing that serves to motivate a character to go from location A to location B in a story. This could be a precious artifact that the hero and the villain are both trying to find, like in The Maltese Falcon, or the Galaxy on Orion’s Belt in the first Men in Black, or Milton’s stapler in Office Space, or the suitcase in Pulp Fiction

Told you it was a broad trope. Just about anything could be a MacGuffin. That doesn’t mean it is, though. To count as a MacGuffin, there is an important caveat: It should be interchangeable

Wait, how can something be valuable but also interchangeable?

A MacGuffin is nothing more than something that moves a character from Point A to Point B in a story. Going back to our above examples: The Maltese Falcon is valuable, but you could substitute in another expensive artifact and nothing changes in the story. The Galaxy on Orion’s Belt could be another valuable object. Milton’s stapler could be just another office supply that he cares about. The suitcase in Pulp Fiction could have been money or jewels. An invitation to a place or event could just be dinner with the same characters or a GPS locator with coordinates. 

A MacGuffin can be integral to the plot so that the entire fate of the story hangs on it, but ultimately, it’s interchangeable. 

So what about Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark? Does the titular Ark of the Covenant count as a MacGuffin. Slight spoilers incoming for a thirty-year-old movie. 

At first it looks like we could change out the Ark for some other lost and precious artifact, but not quite. See, at the end of the movie, the Ark does something. It’s not just a prop—the poor saps who open it get, quite literally, melted by its power. If we swapped in the painting of the Mona Lisa, the ending of the story wouldn’t be quite the same. 

You could also look at the infinity stones in Marvel’s film series (or comics). At first glance, they look like MacGuffins as well. The heroes are zipping along the plot and going all over the Universe to get these things, but the stones aren’t interchangeable. Each stone has a power and does something specific within the story. 

So, if you’re a writer should you use a MacGuffin? 

It depends on what you’re trying to do

Are you trying to set up a meeting between your Main Character and your Villain, it could be an invitation to somewhere. The where part depends on what kind of story you’re writing:

  1. If it’s a romantic comedy, it might be a dinner invitation to dinner, but surprise it’s a double date and the villain and their girlfriend are coming along. 
  2. If it’s a martial arts movie, then it could be a fighting tournament, or a tense meeting on top of a sacred mountain.
  3. If it’s a thriller, it could be a chance meeting where the MC follows the Villain, or a set of GPS coordinates that leads to their meeting. 

In either of these situations, it doesn’t really matter where the meeting is, and that’s part of what makes it a MacGuffin. It’s just a reason for the MC and the villain to meet. 

But back to my answer. I think it depends on the scale of what you’re doing with it. Notice the “I think” disclaimer at the front of that. 

Small scale things, it’s probably fine to use a MacGuffin for. Using our examples, it doesn’t much matter where the MC and villain meet, we just need a reason to put them together. Sometimes a dinner invitation is just a dinner invitation. 

But now let’s compare the titular items of The Maltese Falcon and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The MC’s spend the entire story looking for these precious artifacts. In the first, the artifact doesn’t do anything. In the latter, it melts peoples faces off. 

Which one of those is cooler? Which one of those is more satisfying? 

For the big stuff, make your MacGuffin memorable. Make it do something, or make it have some profound personal interest for the MC—make it more than just a name and a placeholder.

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