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