You may have heard of this phrase before, you may not, but anyone who has watched a film knows instinctively what it is. The Mcguffin is a lynchpin of storytelling and today we’re looking at its emergence and examples within pop culture.
So What Is A McGuffin?
Mcguffin or Macguffin/məˈɡʌfɪn/noun : an object or device in a film or a book which serves merely as a trigger for the plot. An entity, gadget or occurrence needed for the character’s plot and inspiration, whether trivial, incidental or in itself irrelevant.
In stories the Mcguffin represents (for the most part) the reason that the protagonist has left their normal routine or ventured out on a quest. It’s a popular technique or (in the case of Back To The Future) vehicle to catapult the characters into an adventure.
The Mcguffin is a popular trend in thriller stories but usually follows a set pattern withing the plot : In the first act the Mcguffin is presented as an idea, reason for motivation or physical object that must be sought out, initiated or collected. In the course of the story the Mcguffin becomes less important and takes a back seat to the characters and story itself. The Mcguffins purpose is that it leads the characters where they need to be to tell their story. It could be said that a Mcguffin largely assists in the growth and/or arc of a characters.
A Mcguffin can be a gadget or gizmo, circumstance or case and can be represented by something more abstract, like a sense of love or power. It can be defined more specifically as a valuable plot instrument. Their appearance can appear naturally and is in no way a necessary building block for a good story. It would be easy to suggest that this plot device is an easy crutch for writers, but it certainly makes it easier to tell a story.
This device must represent something worth fighting for, or at very least some sort of tangible value to the characters persuing it. In many cases the device and its gain will represent further status or opportunity for a character.
This device helps the reader/viewer/gamer/listener understand the characters and their motivations. Why are the characters seeking this thing? What is motivating other characters to stop them? This interaction betwee device and characters also lets us understand the inner workings of the world where the story is taking place
The term itself is a relatively modern one, however the concept has been around in storytelling for some time which we will give examples of below.
It has been wrongly credited to Alfred Hitchcock who has made various statements to quantify the term and its significance to a plot. His association was possibly due to his telling of a story appearing in the February 22, 1950 edition of the El Paso Herald-Post:
There is a bloke on a train He sees a package, and asked what it is. Man says it’s a McGuffin. Other man asks what is a McGuffin? Other cove says a McGuffin is an apparatus for trapping lions in the Adirondacks. ‘But there are no lions in the Adirondacks,’ other bloke says. ‘Then this thing is no McGuffin,’ second lad says.
The name MacGuffin was actually coined by the British screenwriter Angus MacPhail however not much information around the creation exists. Hitchcock famously stated in his 1939 lecture at Columbia University:
[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the “MacGuffin”. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.
A great game to play is to think about your favourite stories and try to pick out the Mcguffin. Here’s a list that we’ve put together so far. Feel free to add your own in the comments :
Homer’s Iliad – Helen of Troy and her great beauty
Jason and the Argonauts – The Golden Fleece
The Maltese Falcon – The statue
Back To The Future – The time machine
Pulp Fiction – The briefcase
The Big Lebowski – The Dude’s rug (it really tied the room together)
Titanic – The Heart of the Ocean
Captain America – The Tesseract
Fargo – The briefcase full of money
The Hangover – The Groom, Doug
Avatar – Unobtanium
Harry Potter – The Sorcerer’s Stone (in the first story and most prominently The Horcruxes later in the series)
Saving Private Ryan – Private Ryan
Monty Python and the Holy Grail – The Holy Grail
Star Wars (A New Hope) – The Death Star plans
Raiders Of The Lost Ark – The Ark Of The Covenant
Marvel Cinematic Universe – The Infinity Stones
Citizen Kane – Rosebud
One of the worst uses of the Mcguffin was in Star Wars : The Rise Of Skywalker where the heroes have to use a Mcguffin to find the location of a Mcguffin that will lead them to a Mcguffin. All of these Sith Wayfinders and Daggers aside, these Mcguffins somehow align physically with the location of the Death Star wreckage. (I’m not getting into the silliness of this premise here. I simply cannot spare the time, effort and wordcount it would take to explain the stupidity of this concept within the films plot. Maybe one day…..)
I realize at this point i have used the term Mcguffin far too excessively and my head hurts. Goodbye.
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