MacGuffin

What is it and when to use?

The MacGuffin (also spelled McGuffin) has always been one of my favorite “techniques” in screenwriting, and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s because of its funny-sounding name, or maybe it’s because it screams Hitchcock as Hitchcock screams for it, or maybe it’s because it’s all-around awesome in its simplicity. But what is it?

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 appearance, 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, and a pricy artifact. In Pulp Fiction, it’s the suitcase loaded with you-don’t-know-what.

An Object of Interest

When 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.

 

As Seen at 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.

A Character

In a more poetic understanding, a MacGuffin doesn’t always have to be a physical object. It could be a character.

As Seen at 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.

Good Will Hunting Matt Damon

 

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, as in this shot from Psycho. psycho money

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. Instead of simply running, Mrs. Brisby now has to make sure that she won’t lose the medicine. This is good storytelling.

 

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