Friday, April 22, 2011

An Amazing Literary Device : the MacGuffin

While researching for literary devices for a project, I came across something called a MacGuffin, its also called McGuffin or maguffin. I have to admit that I had not heard of this term before. MacGuffin is supposed to be an element of plot that catches the viewers’ attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction.  It’s frequently used in films, television and literature. The main or defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are, atleast in the beginning of the story willing to do anything or sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is.       
The article further went on to say that the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be vague, ambiguous, undefined, generic, sometimes left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples of a MacGuffin are money, victory, glory, to gain prestige, survival, a source of power, or a potential threat, a feeling of one upmanship, jealousy, it can also be something entirely unexplained.

The MacGuffin is  said to be common in movies, especially thrillers. They are also more often than not, the central focus of the movies in the first act, the MacGuffin declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out in the second act. It may return or come into play at the climax of the story, but sometimes the MacGuffin is eventually forgotten by the end of the movie. Multiple  MacGuffins in a story are referred to as plot coupons.

Few examples of  the use of the literary device MacGuffin in  films are the meaning of rosebud in Citizen Kane, the rabbit’s foot in Mission:Impossible III, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction and Ronin and the mineral unobtainium in Avatar.  Its believed that in crook stories the MacGuffin is  almost always the necklace and in spy stories its almost  always the papers.

In television examples of MacGuffin are the Rambaldi device in Alias, the orb in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr, and Krieger Waves in the Star Trek:The Next generation episode “A Matter of Perspective.” 

Opinions are divided about the MacGuffin, according to Alfred Hitchcock a “MacGuffin is the object around which the plot revolves, but, the  audience  really don’t care as  to what  specifically the object is, it can be anything.”  George Lucas has a different opinion, “he believes that the Macguffin should be powerful and that the audience should care about it as much the fighting heroes and villains on screen.” Two contrary opinions to add to the chaos.

Taking a magnifying glass, I analyzed my own story. I  think I can detect a MacGuffin,  but, I am not very sure about it, as I am completely clueless about this literary device.

Have you ever added a MacGuffin to your story? If yes, how did you do that? Would you be interested in adding one in future? If you have any MacGuffin tips we all would love to learn from it.


  1. Very Informative post. I too had not heard of this term, Rachna. You have a great blog, and I am glad I found it.

  2. Just about every story has a macguffin, it's just the thing the character wants. The reason Hitchcock gave it such a silly name was because it doesn't really matter what it is, deep down we know the boy will get the girl, the cop will catch the killer etc.

    The reason for watching a movie or reading a story is less about finding out who wins or loses, and more about the journey and the way the characters interact with each other.

    It's just that in order to get the audience to come with you on that journey you need to give them an end point to aim for. It's a trick to keep their attention focused on the story. Sorry, not a trick, a literary device.

    Moody Writing

  3. The letters of transit in Casablanca is the McGuffin of that movie. The statue of a falcon in The Maltese Falcon (movie). The Philosopher's Stone and the Elder Wand in Harry Potter. All of these are examples of McGuffins around which plots revolve.

  4. @ Rishta..thanks.

    @ Mooderino....I thought the same thing, that every story must have a MacGuffin, which the character wants badly. But, then after reading Hitchcock, I was confused.

    @ Lia...thanks for giving me such clear examples. I found the MacGuffin in my WIP after reading your examples. :)

  5. cool, but what about the 'macgyver'? :O lol

  6. I've heard of this term before. It seems to me that all stories have some type of MacGuffin in them. Its definition is rather vague though! It could be anything from an object to an abstraction and at the same time be wholly unimportant if its forgettable by the end, haha.

  7. Hmmm, you got me thinking! I feature a knapsack and a leather shoulder bag (historical fiction here) in my book. Literary devices, yes. Macguffins? Didn't put a name to them before, but now I know :-) Thanks for a neat topic...

    Oh, and I loved the ending with Rosebud in Citizen Kane!

  8. thanks for enhancing my knowledge about Macguffin :)

  9. What you're talking about is kind of like the gun on the mantle, Rachna:

    Put the gun on the mantle. A writing aphorism states that if one character will shoot another at the end of a play, the audience needs to see the gun on the mantle at the beginning of the play. Fill in your story with the details needed to make the climax inevitable.

  10. Honestly, I had not heard about it. very informative.

    Rachna, my friend in Blore wants creative writing classes for her 14 yr old....Any ideas?

  11. Love this post. I don't have a MacGuffin, but will consider it for future novels. :O)

  12. I've heard of the term before, but didn't have a clear idea of what it is, so thank you for this great informative post and the examples. Now I will be looking for it in all books and movies! The book I'm curently reading is "Falling Under" and if the McGuffin is what the MC wants most, it's the girl wanting her father to love her; but really good stories quickly complicate that want with other things.

  13. Rachna, you're chalk full of literary info! This one is fantastic. I'm sure I have one here and there, but I'd need brainpower to think on that...

    Happy Easter, cutie pie!


  14. I hadn't heard of a MacGuffin before, although I had heard about the ploy.

  15. Interesting post! I hadn't heard the term 'MacGuffin' but I'm not likely to forget it now.

    I've not used a literal MacGuffin (like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction) but I've used non-literal ones, like glory or love or freedom. I like the idea of both a literal and a non-literal one. I guess a different expression would be the main character's basic need and circumstancial need.


  16. I had heard of a Macguffin before but I was never sure what it really was. Thanks for clearing this up!

  17. I've never heard of a MacGuffin and I'm not sure I'd be able to tell if my WIP has one or not. I shall certainly look though!

    Awesome post.

    Ellie Garratt

  18. Never heard of this! It seems that every story should have one, at least in the sense that it's what the MC wants most. It may not be a physical object. But if it's what the MC wants most, it would have to drive the entire plot. Unless the MacGuffin is just what they think they want, but it evolves that they really want something else. Great post!

  19. I've never purposely used one, although I am open to trying it. Will let you know how it goes! Thanks for the info. :)
    Have a great week,

  20. I've never heard of this! Thanks for teaching me something :)