All Hail the MacGuffin

I had a very long and unhappy screed teed up about the Senatorial race here in Maine, the disingenuous clowning of Bill Green pretending he was only doing a favor for a friend, and how nativism in the state becomes a kind of xenophobia and holds us back, but I figured the whole thing was too raw at the moment. So let’s talk about MacGuffins.

The classic MacGuffin definition comes from a tale ascribed to Alfred Hitchcock.

Two men are riding on a train. One asks the other, “What’s in that black box on the luggage rack?”

“A MacGuffin.”

“What does it do.”

“It catches lions on the Scottish Highlands.”

“But there are no lions on the Scottish Highlands.”

“Oh? Then, that’s a MacGuffin.”

Typically enigmatic for the round mound of conundrum. The term shows up earlier in history, but he’s most often credited with inventing it.
Technically speaking, the MacGuffin is the object (or situation or other fictional event) that may be integral to the plot of a book or movie, but is not very important in and of itself. The classic example of the MacGuffin is the statuette of the black-painted gold bird in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade and several criminal types all compete to gain possession of the jeweled statue of a falcon. Ultimately (SPOILER ALERT), the statuette that comes into the movie is fake. The real one is still missing at the end of the film. The falcon only exists as an object for the principals to seek—it might as well have been the letters of transit in Casablanca or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

I’m interested in MacGuffins right now because I had to invent one a couple months ago. I’m working on an odd little novel, not part of the Elder Darrow series, that involves a disgraced Army veteran and a couple of Federal politicians working in opposition to each other. But I was seriously stuck as to why they were all in conflict until I realized I needed something all parties needed to possess very badly, for different reasons. Once I had invented the MacGuffin, I was sailing.

A MacGuffin, of course, has to relate to the characters. Alfred Hitchcock is also quoted as saying that in The 39 Steps, the MacGuffin was “the thing the spies were after but the audience doesn’t care.” In other words, because the characters were spies, they had to be after something worthy of their roles. Those spies would not likely care in the same way about a jewel-encrusted statue. It would make a different story.

Which begs the question of whether you can write a crime novel without using a MacGuffin. To the extent that a MacGuffin motivates the plot, no. If you look at the MacGuffin as the object of a character or characters’ desire, then something like a MacGuffin is always necessary—if a character hasn’t a desire, you don’t have a story.

The MacGuffin doesn’t need to be a physical object. The object of desire can be a character’s vindication, an apology, power, hatred—essentially anything that moves the characters, whether the heroes or the villains.

Of course, the MacGuffin has to be worthy of the effort for the characters seeking it. Criminals do bad things for an end, not simply because they’re criminals. As do heroes. The logic may not be immediately apparent to a reader, but a character has to have a reason to seek the MacGuffin.

What makes a good MacGuffin? First, it must relate to the characters in your story somehow. Their desire for it must not change during the course of the plot, unless forced to by the story. And it can’t seem phony to the reader, jimmied in for the sake of the narrative.

In the case of the novel I’m working on, the MacGuffin turned out to be a small collection of photographs that all the principals wanted, for different reasons. But I had to justify each character’s interest in the photos with a believable and adequate motive. As with any fictional technique, you must be very careful not to pull back the curtain on the MacGuffin wizard and reveal the artifice of what you’re doing.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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2 Responses to All Hail the MacGuffin

  1. Great explanation. I expect I’ll be MacGuffin hunting in most of me reads for a while.

  2. Alice Dashiell says:

    Don’t forget that the Maltese Falcon was originally the idea of Dashiell Hammett — an ancestor of my husband.

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