Monday, October 25, 2021

Do You Know the MacGuffin man?

Let's talk about the MacGuffin.

For those unacquainted with the term, it's one Alfred Hitchcock used often and an approach of which he was very fond. 

Briefly, the MacGuffin is something that the characters in a story believe is important, it's even important for the furtherance of the plot, but is not in itself terribly important. 

It was first coined, it's been claimed, by writer and script fixer (or scenario editor) Angus MacPhail, an old friend of Hitchcock's and who contributed - uncredited- to the scripts of both his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo.

An example is the microfilm in North by Northwest, which is almost an aside in the storytelling, and the money Marion Crane steals in Psycho. It's what kicks off the whole journey to that shower and what happens afterwards but is so insignificant subsequently it's hardly mentioned again.

You might even argue the statuette of the bird of prey in The Maltese Falcon is the ultimate MacGuffin. Everyone wants it, the storyline is about finding it, but in the end it turns out to be fake. The story is about the search and the character interplay, the actual object doesn't really matter that much.

In Alex Cox's cult film from the 80s 'Repo Man', it's a strangely glowing case (memories there of Robert Aldrich's film version of 'Kiss Me Deadly'). A case also features in 'Pulp Fiction.'

And more recently, we have the Rabbit's Foot in Mission Impossible 3. What on earth is it? I don't know but it doesn't matter. The characters believe it to be important and that's enough.

I suppose it could be argued that the identity of the killer in some police procedurals - especially those where the culprit turns out to be someone perhaps barely introduced before - is also a MacGuffin. It's the investigation that matters and the people who are conducting it, not necessarily the person whose collar is felt. That may well be a controversial opinion but I'm from Glasgow and we fear nothing.

That was the driving force behind almost every episode of Columbo, I believe. I don't include the ones based on Ed McBain stories for which the makers abandoned the formula which gave us the identity of the killer up front. That showed us knowing the killer didn't matter - what was important was the way Columbo tripped them up and the wonderful character by-play along the way.

So, class, the MacGuffin is a catalyst to get the plot moving, it's not the plot itself. Write that down.

So why am I thinking of MacGuffins?

I've written a book on spec and I have pulled a MacGuffin. The thing is, it's only now that it's out on submission that I have realised! It didn't occur to me while I was writing or reviewing.

There is an item that everyone is desperate to find but really it's merely a device to kickstart the plot and to draw in the characters, because they are what the book is really about. Especially the protagonist who - and I can't believe I'm going to say this because it sounds so phoney - embarks on a journey both physically and psychologically. Yes, I'm cringing but I can't think of another way to explain it.

Obviously, I'm not going to expand on what that MacGuffin is or anything about the plot save to say that, despite my gut-wrenchingly arty-farty description above, it is a fast-moving adventure. (Publishers, please contact my agent).

I hope commissioning editors see it for what it is and not a flaw in the storytelling.

I'd be interested in hearing other examples of MacGuffins - and whether not any writers, whether published or aspiring, feel a MacGuffin is a valid tool in our belt or a cheat.

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