If you’re interested in movies, you’ve probably already heard of the ‘macguffin.’ Honestly, even if you aren’t, you’ve probably heard people talk about it—maybe you’ve heard reviewers refer to things in movies or books as ‘macguffins,’ generally with an air of disdain for the laziness of that macguffin (though not always).
But what is a macguffin? Where did that word come from? And how can we use macguffins effectively in our own writing?
This article is here to answer all those questions and more—let’s get started.
Table of Contents
What is a macguffin
The term macguffin comes from Alfred Hitchcock. According to Merriam Webster, he borrowed it from an old shaggy-dog story in which some passengers on a train interrogate a fellow passenger carrying a large, strange-looking package. Hitchcock was interested in the way that the package held the audience’s attention and built interest which outlasted the presence of the package itself.
This is a trick of the mystery novel, but while macguffins certainly do tend to appear more often in mystery novels (they’re something of a genre staple), they’re not unique to mysteries. We see macguffins come up a lot in action-adventure stories, too.
The term macguffin is now applied more generally, and macguffins are understood to be objects which kick the plot into gear, or objects around which the plot revolves. It’s an object which must be destroyed, recovered, taken out of the wrong hands, or put into the right hands in order for the hero to meet her goal.
This happens in mystery novels, but it’s also a very common device in action-adventure stories—we’ll get into some famous examples later.
How to use a macguffin
Now that we’ve defined what a macguffin is and we understand how it functions, let’s talk about how we can use a macguffin in our own work.
As I mentioned earlier, macguffins are sometimes brought up disdainfully—this is because macguffins can often feel lazy and serve as a stand-in for emotional growth or personal involvement on the part of the hero in the storyline. This isn’t something inherent to the macguffin, though, and if you know what you’re doing, you can avoid this problem.
Know why you need a macguffin
First and foremost, the decision to use a macguffin should be intentional. This is how you keep any part of your manuscript from feeling lazy, superfluous, or otherwise ill-advised—make it necessary.
This means that a macguffin shouldn’t be literally the only reason that the main character gets involved with the plot. It should kick things into gear, but the main character should also have some kind of personal involvement with the story and motivation for solving the main conflict of the story which, while having to do with the macguffin, are not solely dependent on the macguffin.
Basically, if the macguffin were to vanish, it shouldn’t feel like the main character would just shrug and go home.
Decide what the macguffin will be
That in mind, decide what your macguffin is going to be. This will vary based on the kind of story you’re telling. Indiana Jones is a franchise full of macguffins—each story is based on the acquisition of an artifact, which is a macguffin (although, note that Indiana Jones is pursuing these artifacts out of a personal interest in seeing them put in museums, which is a goal that doesn’t necessarily depend on the specific macguffin in question).
Make it something interesting and something that matters, in a similar way, to your character. When you create your character bio template, you might find the macguffin is something personal to the character, like a family heirloom or stolen possession, or it might be something incredibly dangerous, so that the world is in perilous danger so long as the macguffin is in the hands of or at risk of falling into the hands of the story’s villain.
Introduce your reader to the macguffin
At some point early in the story, make sure your audience understands the macguffin. If it’s the sort of macguffin that could blow up the world, we need to know what it is and understand the stakes to its retrieval so that we’re rooting for the main character to succeed in their quest. If it’s a macguffin that just means a lot to the main character, we need to know why it matters.
In this regard, the macguffin is almost a character unto itself. Showing it to the reader and having them understand its importance is pivotal to the reader’s investment in everything that happens to that macguffin.
Make it necessary to reach
With any story, you want the main character’s goal to be vital. The stakes to a given story don’t need to be ‘the main character succeeds or else the world ends’–it doesn’t need to be life or death, but it needs to feel like life or death to the main character.
So, if your story revolves around a macguffin, that macguffin must be absolutely vital to the story. If the story is about saving the world, then the macguffin must be dealt with for this goal to be reached. If the story is about recovering an artifact, then obviously what happens to that artifact is crucial.
If your story is going to feature a macguffin, make it essential.
Make it as difficult as possible to obtain
Again, with any story, you want the conflict to be compelling. The reasons why your character can’t obtain their goal should feel real and insurmountable—having the barriers be as difficult as possible (while still being believably defeatable by our main character) is key to making the story engaging.
In the case of a macguffin, this means making the character really work to get it. If Indiana Jones waltzed into a temple, immediately found and stashed the artifact, and enjoyed a lovely walk home, it would make for a much less interesting story. Instead, we see him hunt down the artifact, braving his greatest personal fears (snakes!), solving difficult riddles, and braving life-threatening conditions, all in the name of obtaining the macguffin.
Use the macguffin for characterization
Speaking of which—the macguffin should be instrumental in characterization, especially for your protagonist. Their pursuit of the macguffin tells us something, but how they pursue it, whether they succeed or fail, and how they succeed or fail tells us something else entirely.
Do they do whatever it takes to get the macguffin, even if that means pulling some heinous crimes? Or do they take the high road, which involves enduring personal suffering in the name of not pulling heinous crimes? Does their commitment to honor ultimately save or hinder them? Does our main character even care about the macguffin, or do they just care about the lives they’ll save by destroying or retrieving it?
Avoid the sexy lamp problem
There’s a trope called the ‘Sexy Lamp Trope’ which describes, basically, a damsel in distress. This is a woman the hero must save—the quest happens in the name of rescuing her, and she basically has no function within the plot except to be rescued. Think Princess Peach.
This is to be avoided because it’s very objectifying. The reason this trope is called the ‘sexy lamp’ trope is because the woman could be replaced with a sexy lamp and the story wouldn’t change at all—she could be a sexy lamp, a sack of gold, a briefcase full of cash, or the nuclear launch codes, and it wouldn’t matter.
Whatever your macguffin is, avoid having it be a damsel in distress—your readers will thank you for it.
Examples of a macguffin
Here are some great examples of macguffins in movies, books, and TV shows. Check these out to see how macguffins work in stories, and maybe they’ll inspire your next book!
The One Ring
The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein is, without a doubt, vital to the story. Frodo’s journey to destroy the Ring is central to saving the world—if he doesn’t succeed, then the surrounding characters and all their struggles go through everything they go through for nothing.
Frodo is a Hobbit, and Hobbits are peaceful creatures—they aren’t exactly war machines. That’s on purpose. Tolkein was writing The Lord of the Rings after his experiences in World War One (though he’s said that The Lord of the Rings is not intended as allegory), so his decision to have a peaceful creature undergo a perilous journey in the name of vanquishing evil, as well as his decision to show the effects of this journey on that peaceful creature after the fact, is very telling.
This makes the Ring interesting as a macguffin—its interaction with the characters reveals something about them, and its handling and the fallout of that handling are vital to the story’s themes and meaning.
It’s a less good example, but The Hobbit movies feature a macguffin, too: the Arkenstone, which Thorin Oakenshield must retrieve to become king and restore the dwarves to their full former glory.
The Arkenstone is a symbol for lost wealth. It’s also a symbol of what wealth (and, by extension, power) can do to its possessor—if not handled correctly, it can drive its wielder mad. Thorin’s journey doesn’t end when he obtains the Arkenstone because the story isn’t so much about obtaining the Arkenstone as it is about dealing with the Arkenstone.
The Tesseract from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is another textbook example of a contemporary macguffin—for the purposes of this example, I’m referring specifically to its appearance in the first Avengers movie.
This is maybe the simplest use of a macguffin. It’s basically a hugely powerful weapon, and the idea is that they don’t want anyone evil (or even just selfish, in the case of Loki) to get hold of it. Loki gets hold of it, uses it for evil, and the audience then has an investment in seeing the Avengers assemble and work to take it back.
Zeus’s Lightning Bolt
In The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, Zeus’s lightning bolt is the macguffin around which the plot centers. Percy has to retrieve it in order to complete his quest. Getting the lightning bolt requires undergoing all the hijinks he undergoes throughout the book—he has to learn about the new world in which he’s found himself (the world of Camp Half-Blood, demigods, and assorted Greek monsters) and acquire new skills to survive in this world.
Not only does this make for compelling storytelling, but it also sets up the series well, because it acquaints the reader with the story as it acquaints Percy himself. The lightning bolt is Percy’s target, but it isn’t the point of the whole story the way that the Tesseract sometimes feels in something like the Avengers.