What is a MacGuffin?
Simply put, a MacGuffin is an object of interest around which the plot revolves. The term was made popular by director Alfred Hitchcock, who constantly used both the name and the technique.
In Hitchcock's Words
"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 Valuable Object
In its most common version, the MacGuffin is an expensive object desired by many characters. This has been done to death. In this version, the MacGuffin can be a diamond, a relic, a pricy artifact,or a suitcase loaded with money.
An Object of Interest
When the the MacGuffin is not a valuable object, it is often an object of interest – something that both heroes and villains want to get ahold of.
Example from the movies
In North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is the microfilm – a clandestine copy of confidential Government documents. The villains are spies trying to smuggle the microfilm out of the United States. Notice that the secret in the microfilm is not important. We know neither what the microfilm contains nor who copied the documents. What matters is that it exists and its value is clearly established.
In a more poetic understanding, a MacGuffin doesn't always have to be a physical object. It could be a character.
Example from the movies
In Good Will Hunting, the MacGuffin is Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a peculiar young man. He is a genius but also a bully. He doesn't have much self-control, yet his intellect could make him a millionaire. He works as janitor at MIT.
The other characters all revolve around Will. A professor tries to become his mentor, but first he has to mollify Will. Will's friends like his company, but Will's best friend really wishes that he would use his gift to get a good job.
The Filmmaker's Insight
Are MacGuffins absolutely necessary? Well, no. Many movies work without one. But they do add interest and dynamism to the plot. Your screenplay will determine whether or not you need an object or another element to make the story whole.
Many young filmmakers focus on people too much and overlook how important objects can be. Objects, in general, and MacGuffins, in particular, allow the filmmaker to add variety to their shots. See example above.
Also, if you don't have a MacGuffin to drive your film, consider having it to drive some scenes. This can add dramatic tension to a sequence. In the animation The Secret of NIMH (1982), excitement is added to an otherwise simple chase, as Mrs. Brisby (a mouse) has to elude Dragon (a cat) while also not losing an envelope that contains her pneumonic son's medicine. This is good storytelling.
- Three-Act Structure: The golden structure
- Exposition: Bring your character to another level
- Main Character: Whose story is it?
- Theme: How to thicken the narrative?
- Dialogue: Writing compellingly and realisticly
Lessons on Directing:
- Tips to a Future Film Director
- Blocking: What is it and how do it efficiently?
- Coverage: Dos and Don'ts
- Everything to know about Shooting Script
Lessons on Cinamatography:
- Exposure: Mastering light and camera
- Camera Angles: Intensifying the drama
- Shot Sizes: Directing what viewers see