Many of our favorite stories have an item that our heroes are attempting to retrieve. Sometimes that item has significance to the plot, like in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the titular lost ark ends up getting Indiana Jones out of a precarious situation. And sometimes the item is just an item that the heroes need to find because, well, something needs to run the plot of this thing.

In that case, the item is called a MacGuffin.

Macguffin

While the Ark might not have been a MacGuffin, this golden monkey thing certainly was.

A MacGuffin is a plot device that is an object, goal, or something that motivates the protagonist and drives the plot, but serves no other purpose whatsoever. The significance or importance of the MacGuffin is never explained, and sometimes it might never actually be shown. All the reader knows is that everyone in the story is trying to get their hands on it.

To check and see if something is a MacGuffin, ask if it’s interchangeable. For example, in Ocean’s Twelve, the Faberge egg is a perfect example of a MacGuffin because it could be swapped out for anything, and the story wouldn’t change. However, Eleven and Thirteen avoid the MacGuffin trap because there are character motivations for stealing the particular items.

The term MacGuffin was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, who credited the use of the term to one of his writers, Angus McPhail, who created the term from a joke from his youth.

Can you think of any other MacGuffins from novels or movies?

PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes and come up with a MacGuffin scenario of your own. You can either make your characters play the MacGuffin straight, or turn it on its head and have them start questioning what the significance of the MacGuffin is.

Post your practice in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow writers.

Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let’s Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).