The `Macguffin’ – Clever or Cop-out?

Please see my earlier post for a description of Chekov’s gun.

Ah, the Macguffin

You may or may not have heard of it. It’s basically an object of desire or plot element that often has little real importance to the plot.

Think Indiana Jones! The Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant… , the ring in Lord of the Rings

Also think Avatar with unobtanium (a term which has long been used to describe fictional substances).

The difference between the Macguffin and Chekov’s gun is that while the gun has to be absolutely relevant, the Macguffin doesn’t really matter. It’s purely a plot device designed to give the main characters something to search for, battle over, leave home for etc. Therefore we begin to debate whether a Macguffin is just a lazy substitute for a Chekov’s gun.

I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to this one. I know why a writer uses a Macguffin. They’re typing away at their novel sending their adventurer in search of something because the character is supposed to undergo an action-packed, exciting adventure, but the writer doesn’t really care about what their character is searching for. They decide just to pick something at random and name it. I’m sure many other writers have done this before. (I think I’ve done this myself.) It’s more a question of choosing what is and what isn’t the focus of your story.


Image by AdiTrupz via Flickr


A little more time spent on the Macguffin and you could develop it into a Chekov’s gun. You could develop it as an important part of the story and not just some random item.

One way to do this would be to link the protagonist and the item they’re searching for in some way.

For example: You have a main character whose very shadowy and secretive. Deep down in his heart he wishes to be more adventurous, more outlandish and colourful. If he was in search of a precious gemstone, you could make the precious gemstone appear shadowy and mysterious too, but when he touches it, it lights up like a christmas tree and turns him into the sort of man he wishes to be. This turns your  into a bona fide important object in your story and not just an `insert mystical item here’.

It’s in this way that the object of the mask in`The Mask‘ starring Jim Carrey is different. In this film, the mask is integral to the plot and could not easily be substituted or removed from the story. This gives it much more weight in the film.

So, the next time you create an object for your novel, film, script etc think about developing it beyond the role of Macguffin and giving your story more weight.

See Chekov’s Gun or Vampire Diaries: Parallel Scenes for more info on literary techniques.

Image belongs to http://www.sxc.huprofilecobrasoft.


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