Friday, June 11, 2010

Literary Devices Part 3: The MacGuffin

Okay, I was going to do this eventually but since Laura Diamond brought it up from last week's post (and this is a momentous week--I have linked to Laura on each of my posts this week!), I thought I'd tackle the MacGuffin.


It's not the MacGyver (though I should have an ode to him, I had such a crush on that guy in high school). And it's not a McMuffin either. Nor a McLovin'. It may possibly be a White Castle burger, though.

The MacGuffin is usually an object that drives the plot. Part of its importance is that everyone in the story seems to want it. It was coined by Alfred Hitchcock, who explained is as such: "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." (Oxford English Dictionary)

Some famous MacGuffins?

The Ring in the LOTR books
The Sorcerer's Stone, JK Rowling
The sugar bowl in the Lemony Snicket books
Ice-9 in Cat's Cradle
The Maltese Falcon by Hammett

I had a MacGuffin in my first novel, which is now resting peacefully in my hard drive. Have you used a MacGuffin lately? Or read a book recently featuring a MacGuffin?

45 comments:

Ted Cross said...

I don't have one, even though my novel is named after an item, The Shard. The fact is that the shard is only really wanted by the wizard, and he has to push and prod the rest of the people to help him.

Victoria Dixon said...

Hmmm. That's tough. I guess you could say my MacGuffin is one of my characters. The bad guy has captured and imprisoned the Emperor to force an abdication. The good guy wants said Emperor back on throne. Interesting. I hadn't thought of it as a plot device. ;D

Slamdunk said...

Interesting topic. I thought about my last few reads and can't think of an example. Now that I challenged, I am sure one will hit me in the face later today.

Aubrie said...

Now that I know what it is, I'll have to look for it. So far, I don't think so, but there could be one hiding in there!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I had to think about that for a bit. I don't believe I do. Nope, I'm pretty positive I don't.

Joanne said...

I've never heard of a MacGuffin, and don't think I've used one. Would this be used more in certain genres than others?

B.E. Sanderson said...

I think I had a McGuffin once. I'd tell you more about it, but if this book ever does get published, I don't want to ruin the surprise for anyone. (Hope springs eternal this morning.)

I can't think of any good McGuffins I've read about recently. (I could still be sticky on the term, though, so don't mind me.)

storyqueen said...

I've got a MacGuffin!

It's a map.

(and I think I love that word.)

Shelley

Giles Hash said...

I read a lot of mysteries where the detective is a wizard...so yeah, I've read a few books with MacGuffin's recently :)

And I have to nerd out a bit...sorry...(imagine my best impression of Comic Book guy from the Simpsons) it's the Philosopher's Stone, and it was only in one book :D

You have a great point with this post, though. I think a MacGuffin could, possibly, be just about anything... even an intangible ideal that all the characters are looking for.

Mayowa said...

Great post Lydia,

I knew about this in a very vague way and now your post has clarified it tremendously.

Thanks for connecting the dots.

Theresa Milstein said...

I never thought about an object-driven plot. In the end, it's still all about character.

The manuscript I last edited has fog which drives the plot. Sort of. That's the closest I've ever come to an object.

Bossy Betty said...

Very interesting! I had never really thought about this!

T.D. Newton said...

While I do love MacGuffins, I generally try to avoid them in my own work. I prefer the characters to drive the plot, rather than carting some magical object around throughout the entire story. That's not to say I haven't used magical objects here and there for plot events, but they're usually put into use fairly soon after they're put into play.

Tahereh said...

how awesome!! hehe and i love your pictures, by the way. i don't think there's a specific macguffin in my book, but i can definitely see what you mean!

i'll be mentally calling them that now.

haha

Amparo Ortiz said...

I don't think I have a MacGuffin... But since I'm slightly brain challenged after working on my WIP, maybe I just haven't noticed it :D

By the way, I LOVE your plot devices posts, Lydia! Thanks for the info.

Mohamed Mughal said...

Reminds me of the ring in The Beatles movie, "Hard Days Night."

Cute post! :)

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

Haha, a White Castle Burger. Ew.
Um, as of now no there is no MacGuffin in my WiP although I am planning on one being in there...possibly. If the story lends to it, we'll see. Gives me somethin' to think about.
Have a great weekend!

Faith said...

White Castle! Gross... haha.

I don't think I have one in any of my current works, but I know I have a few pre-plotted ideas that use them. One in particular uses a Dumpster.

Trying to think of one I've read recently... Kristin Britain's 'Green Rider' was driven by a letter the MC had to deliver, so there's one.

However, now I'm hungry for a McMuffin. Curses! Guess it's time to break for lunch.

DL Hammons said...

Although I didn't use one for my current WIP, I did use a MacGuffin for my first. The MacGuffin was actually a missing person. That counts...right?

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

Hmm, I don't think I have one. Maybe a subconscious one ... interesting thought!

Sarah Enni said...

I totally have one. Bigtime. That means my book is just like LOTR, right? ...!

lbdiamond said...

Maybe the MacGuffin can be a person too--The Great Gatsby perchance? ;)

Anywho, I did have a MacGuffin in a ealier novel. Yes, it was an amulet. Another time I used a journal. Most recently, hmmm, I think there's something about whiskers... ;)-

Great post!!! And a big thanks for linking me! I feel so special!

M. Gray said...

I haven't heard this before. Thanks for sharing it! My latest WIP has an iPod with an important encryption. Everyone wants that, so I guess that's my MacGuffins. What a crazy name!

Elana Johnson said...

For me, it's always a book. There's a book that holds all the secrets. I don't know what the secrets are though, and that usually creates a BIG problem.

Carol Kilgore said...

Maybe ... only one character knows about it. But all the others want to know what she knows.

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

I have a key card, but it doesn't come in till halfway through. Not sure if I can count that as a MacGuffin.

Sandy Shin said...

I don't have one with my current WiP, but has one in my SNI. And I didn' know it was called the MacGuffin! :)

Sandy Shin said...

Oh, and I forgot: I've just tagged you on my blog. :)

Okie said...

I love the idea of a MacGuffin but haven't ever really used one. I should try and do a short story with it one of these days and see how it works.

Okie said...

oh, and yes, MacGyver rocks!

Melissa said...

My MacGuffin would probably be my main character. Every one wants her (for different reasons) because she has something the rest of them don't (and no the something is not an object - it's inside of her).

I can't think of any MacGuffin's in any books I've recently read. Unless you count my history texts for school....and then I guess power would be the MacGuffin there.

Great post! And I totally agree with all the famous examples you used. It really helped clarify the concept.

Vicki Rocho said...

I'm going to have to go back and read the Lemony Snicket books because I don't remember the sugar bowl. It has been a few years...

Heather said...

I haven't used one for quite a while but I will be in a series I plan to rewrite later this year. This is a great reminder about what drives the plot, thank you!

Solvang Sherrie said...

Wow, I'm loving these terms you're coming up with! I guess my books do have MacGuffins in them. Hope they don't make my butt look fat...

Jessica Nelson said...

Oooh, I have never, ever heard of this....Hmmmm, trying to think here. I write contemporary romance. Would there be a McGuffin in that? I know there's usually a certain thing that one character wants and the other has, or that they both want.
This is great! Thanks for giving me something to think about.
Also, thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. ;-)

elizabeth mueller said...

Oooh! Interesting post! Thank you for enlightening me! :D

Lynn said...

That's a new term for me too. Thanks. I like it! I'd have to say no I haven't a MacGuffin. My characters are searching for love and redemption. But I like the idea of an actual object. I'll have to ponder this for awhile.

Susan Fields said...

I haven't heard of the term MacGuffin before. I'm thinking of my two completed manuscripts, and neither one has a MacGuffin. In fact, the goal in both of them is to kill somebody. Bad guys, both of them, but still, I didn't think I was such a violent person. :)

Shannon said...

I haven't used this device...yet. :)

Talli Roland said...

Interesting! I don't think I've ever heard of this, let alone used it.

Hope you're having a great weekend.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hmm.. I don't have one, but this post makes me want to add it to my next book. Very interesting concept.

Nicole Murray said...

Does a large landmark count?

Jo Schaffer said...

Hey I still need your address to send your prize... and actually you can choose the book or bath set because The Urban Cowboy surrendered his prize. (=
Let me know which you want and where to send it. (=

prashant said...

I like the idea of an actual object. I'll have to ponder this for awhile.
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Matthew MacNish said...

I wrote about this recently, but hadn't realized you'd already done a great job!

 
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