Friday, February 29, 2008

Now Serving Egg MacGuffins

At first I assumed it was some sort of unhealthy breakfast fast food. But soon after I started writing novels, I discovered a "MacGuffin" was in fact a well-known term for a story element, especially in thrillers and mysteries. The term was invented by either Alfred Hitchcock or his screenwriter pal Angus MacPhail.(who penned Spellbound and The Wrong Man). In an interview, Hitchcock explained:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" And the other answers, "Oh that's a McGuffin." The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?" "Well," the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers "Well, then that's no McGuffin!" So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

In the strictest interpretation, a MacGuffin is an object or item the pursuit of which drives the plot, but which has no real impact on the story. The maltese falcon in The Maltese Falcon is a classic MacGuffin: it serves solely to motivate the characters. Some cite the stolen “letters of transit” in Casablanca as another classic MacGuffin, but by the narrow definition of MacGuffin, they aren’t: the letters of transit allow two people to leave Casablanca, and two people leaving Casablanca is vital to how the whole movie evolves and reaches its climax.

The broader interpretation of MacGuffin allows the object to have more significance in the story. The MacGuffin in such cases may be laden with symbolism, or emotional significance to the characters, and may actually play a pivotal role in the course of the plot. George Lucas has claimed that R2-D2 is the MacGuffin of Star Wars. In the narrow sense, he’s wrong, as R2-D2 is a character whose actions profoundly influence the story; and the plans that are stored inside his memory are what allows the Rebel Alliance to destroy the Death Star. That’s hardly hardly having little real impact on the story other than acting as a motivator!

The narrow use of MacGuffin implies interchangeability. The maltese falcon could have been a jewel or a rare book or the blueprint for a rocket without altering the characters or the way the story unfolds; you could sit down and alter the novel or the screenplay without having to change the scenes or even much of the wording.

In the expanded use of MacGuffin, as used by Lucas, the MacGuffin is an integral part of the premise of the story, and if you change your MacGuffin you dramatically change the shape of the story. Change R2-D2 to a secret formula or a a jeweled crown, and you will find that Star Wars requires quite a rewrite—and may not, in fact, be workable as a story.

At the risk of being accused of objectifying women, I could argue (and in fact shall) that in the expanded sense of MacGuffin, Mary is the MacGuffin of There’s Something About Mary. (Come to think of it, I didn’t write the screenplay, and if there’s objectification going on it would be in the script, not in my comments here. So stop raising your eyebrows at me.) Mary is the motivator for everyone’s behavior, and the structure of her life and personality affect the course of the story—replace her with a very dissimilar love interest, and the story changes. Replace her with a money-filled suitcase, and the whole story vanishes.

Why am I talking about this? Because I’m having MacGuffin problems—MacGuffin being in the expanded sense of the term. (I rather doubt that I’ll ever write a story that employs a MacGuffin in the narrowest sense of the word.) And so I’m musing about it in public.

I suppose the plural is simply MacGuffins. But I prefer to think of them in Gollum-speak. How many MacGuffinses does your story have, precious?


Usman said...

Are there good and bad Macguffins? I mean in the literary world.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

I'm going to have to think about that. I guess I think that almost all true MacGuffins in the narrow sense are boring; I'd much rather the motivating widget have some real implications.

Hammett's maltese falcon itself is kind of boring, but The Maltese Falcon is great.

Come to think of it, in many mysteries I love best, I can't really remember what the plot/mystery was. Lawrence Block's Eight Million Ways to Die is a case in point--what I remember about the book is the voice, the odd anecdotes used to reinforce the theme expressed in the title, and, above all, protagonist Matthew Scudder's fight with his alcoholism. The premise? Who remembers?

Usman said...

Hi David,
I have been thinking of MacGuffins since you posted this piece. I have been able to spot one in Orhan Pamuk's SNOW that I am reading right now.
It is subtle; a small Macguffin. I would have called it a minor sub plot. And that is what makes me wonder about Macguffins in general. Are they really motivators or plot diversions leading to the story moving forward.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

Well, strictly speaking a MacGuffin is something everyone is chasing, so it is the engine of the plot--but, weirdly, doesn't affect the story.

A MacGuffin motivates people, but in a superficial sense. That is, the MacGuffin is being quested after like the Holy Grail, but the deeper motivation for each player to pursue it is still a matter of characterization.

Man, that was a terrible paragraph I just wrote...