Monday, August 08, 2011

The MacGuffin

Aline here. Today I'm writing in praise of the gloriously-named MacGuffin. I hadn't thought of it for years, then someone mentioned it and I couldn't resist jogging your memories too.

For those of you not familiar with the concept, Alfred Hitchcock is credited with inventing it, though I would contend that it's not an invention, it's a discovery, like electricity and nuclear power. It's another source of energy that has existed ever since the first caveman sat round the fire and began, 'Once upon a time.'

Hitchcock himself explained it by telling the story of two men on a train. One asks the other, 'What's that package on the baggage rack?' 'Ah, that's a MacGuffin.' 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'It's a tool used for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.' 'Well, then, there's no MacGuffin.'

Once you start looking for them, unlike the lions in the Scottish Highlands, you see them everywhere: the plot devices which have no real relevance to the story, except to provide the motivation for a quest or a chase or a flight, which is the real point of the film or book. Once it has been stated that this is terribly, terribly important – 'We must find the Holy Grail!' (why?) – everything else follows from it. As the plot develops, the initial premise can then safely be totally ignored, only to appear at the end to show that the quest, chase, etc has been successful. It may even disappear completely, if the other elements have successfully taken over its function.

You can construct a MacGuffin out of anything you have to hand. 'I must clear the name of my dead father!' 'Unless this piece of information reaches headquarters, the world will blow up in six weeks/ two days/ ten minutes.' 'The only man who knows how to cure my dying wife has been kidnapped.' 'This may look like a small lump of stone but it has a secret which means that sinister powers will do anything to recover it.' You can probably think of dozens – do share them with us!

MacGuffins are vital to most of the box office successes we've enjoyed over the years and lots of the most successful books. We've all had a huge amount of pleasure from them. But there's something of a warning there too.

I was asked once what I thought made a good crime novel. My answer was, 'An absorbing plot which arises out of the nature of compelling characters. When you reach the end of the book, you should be able to see that the outcome was inevitable – while not, of course, being able to guess it on the way through.'

That's my ideal. But since starting this blog about MacGuffins, I've started to worry: what if some of those carefully devised plots, intricately woven into the fabric of the book were – oh horror, oh shame! – really just . . . MacGuffins?


Jamie Lee Scott said...

MacGuffins! I was just asked on Twitter if I used them in my writing. I'd never thought about it, and reading this post made me think about it again.

hannah Dennison said...

I LOVE MacGuffins. My favorite one is "the case" in Ronin. It still bothers me that we'll never know!

Donis Casey said...

The Maltese Falcon is the greatest MacGuffin ever! BTW interesting you should write about this. I'm actually trying to come up with a good MacGuffin for a new book.

Aline Templeton said...

My favourite among the McGuffins I have seen quoted is, 'I'm dying - please give my MacGuffin to ...'

Any use, Donis?