A MacGuffin (sometimes spelled McGuffin) can be a way to draw your characters into the real story. There needs to be something going on at the beginning of the story to hook the reader in and show the characters being proactive—before the full implications of the plot crash down on them. A MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that the characters all want or have reason to interact with. Yet, the MacGuffin itself is unimportant to the plot.
The name MacGuffin originated in film, and was made popular by Alfred Hitchcock. Later, it began to be applied to similar devices used in novels and other storytelling forms.
In theory, a MacGuffin can be almost anything. After all, it isn’t what your characters really want—it’s just what they’re all fighting over until they work their way into the heart of your story. But some MacGuffins work better than others. Choose ones that will deepen your story, making it resonate in some way.
Here are a few possibilities. (NOTE: There are some spoilers for the cited films!) Choose MacGuffins that:
1. Support Your Theme
In National Treasure, the MacGuffin is the Declaration of Independence. The choice ties into the film’s themes, which include doing what you believe to be the right thing, despite what the law says. The writers could have chosen anything to serve as a treasure map (as the story really is about searching for lost treasure, which in turn represents dignity and respect, as the protagonist proves that his family aren’t just a bunch of crackpots).
Imagine if a different document had been chosen. Would the deed to a historic home, or a historic marriage license have had the same effect? Not likely.
Likewise, when you choose the MacGuffin that will draw readers into your story, think about it as a symbol. What does it stand for, outside of the reason the characters are fighting over it? How does it tie to what you want readers to remember about your book?
2. Connect to Specific Characters
In Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope, George Lucas himself identified R2D2 as a MacGuffin. What was really important was the plans that R2 had been given, but the droid itself had quite the personality.
Protagonist Luke bonds with R2, to the point where, at the end of the film, he refuses to fly with a different droid. We start to associate that friendship with Luke’s need for connection, as his only (then known) living relatives are killed at the start of the film, leaving him looking for somewhere to belong. It’s the beginning of Luke’s found family.
You don’t necessarily have to choose the protagonist as the character we connect with the MacGuffin. You could just as easily have the MacGuffin be something created by the antagonist that the protagonist wants so she can remove it from the world. Or it could tie in to a secondary character, foreshadowing how that character might have more importance later. (The Heart of Ta Fiti from Moana comes to mind for this aspect.)
3. Foreshadow Real Plot Issues
In Casablanca, the stolen travel papers are the MacGuffin. The story centers around Rick, a café owner who only looks out for himself, after having his heart broken during WWII. The girl who broke his heart, Ilsa, walks back into his life—along with her husband, whom she had previously believed was dead.
Rick’s big choice is whether to hold onto Ilsa for himself or to let her leave Casablanca with her husband, using the stolen papers. The papers are introduced before the conflict, and serve to highlight how difficult it is to leave, setting up some of the large obstacles in the plot.
The writers could have chosen to introduce money, to be used to bribe the necessary folks to cross borders, or gone in a different direction entirely. But it wouldn’t have tied things together nearly as neatly.
When you use a MacGuffin in this manner, something about it needs to be specifically relevant right away. The reader needs to be able to put the implications together, to have a specific worry in the back of their minds, before the plot reveals how this worry will come into play.
4. Capture the Reader’s Imagination
In the film Paycheck, the MacGuffin is an envelope of items that the protagonist gave to himself before having his memory wiped, because it is everything he supposedly needs to solve the plot problems and escape the antagonist’s grasp. That’s basically the whole movie.
How is he going to use the items? Will they help him get the girl? Will the antagonists manage to get one of the key items away from him? What is the real plot, if this is the MacGuffin? It was enough to capture the viewer’s imagination, that that’s all they put in the movie trailer.
If your book has a MacGuffin that intrigues the reader just by what it is—a list that puts secret agents in jeopardy, a ring that corrupts whoever holds it, a priceless statue that will make whoever ends up with it rich—then that makes each character’s motivations clear, allowing the reader to follow along emotionally in the resulting tug-of-war.
5. Ease of Understanding
In Charade, protagonist Regina Lampert is pursued by thugs who are convinced that she has possession of a large sum of money left behind by her murdered husband. She spends most of the film trying to figure out where the money is—only at the end to realize that her husband had bought expensive stamps, and the fortune was on an envelope she had given to her friend’s stamp-collecting son. It’s a huge moment in the film—and once the twist is revealed, it is simple to understand.
Likewise, when you work a MacGuffin into your story, give a visceral meaning to it—money, love, power—so that readers won’t have to guess why everyone wants it.
You can learn more about MacGuffins in my Story Like a Journalist Workbook.
Amber Royer writes the Chocoverse comic telenovela-style foodie-inspired space opera series, and the Bean to Bar Mysteries. She is also the author of Story Like a Journalist: a Workbook for Novelists. She also teaches creative writing and is an author coach. Amber and her husband live in the DFW Area, where you can often find them hiking or taking landscape/architecture/wildlife photographs. If you are very nice to Amber, she might make you cupcakes. Chocolate cupcakes, of course!
Amber blogs about creative writing technique and all things chocolate at www.amberroyer.com. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.