How to Avoid the MacGuffin Trap and Create a Unique Plot

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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 is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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25 Comments

  1. Jessica

    “Sometimes, it’s better if I just do it myself.”

    The proclamation rang out as June busted in the bedroom door. May was sitting on her bed, and when June came in, she jumped up, startled.

    “June,” May nervously twittered, “What has you all bound up in pieces today?” She was afraid of the answer, not because she was afraid of her sister, but because every day it was something dramatic and time-consuming and it was starting to get on her nerves.

    June flung herself onto the window seat and peered down at the barren yard. “You know, May, it’s not like I want to get involved with these things. Adventure just seeks me out. Today I got a letter in the mail from a man in West Virginia who found an old trunk in his barn. I have to go investigate.”

    May rolled her eyes. “You and every other land pirate in America. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

    June moved to her own bed. “Well, when I’m forty and on a beach somewhere soaking in the rays, and you’re sixty-five still filing paperwork at the office, you’ll see what a big deal it all was.” She grabbed her travel bag off the floor and gathered up the clothes that were strewn all over her side of the room. “These are mostly clean, right?”

    May watched the transformation as June haphazardly packed. It seemed like the room went from pig sty to tornado path in five minutes flat. May stood up and walked over stuff to June. She wrapped her arms around her big sister and squeezed.

    “June, I don’t understand why you are so interested in random people’s dirty old trunks, but if you feel like your life isn’t complete until you’ve collected trunks from all fifty states, well, I’ll be here at home supporting you.” May sat back down on her bed. “Just be careful and if someone else shows up wanting the trunk and they have a gun, just let them have it. Random stuff isn’t worth getting dead over.”

    June gave May a patronizing smile. “Of course, dear. I’m always careful.” And with that, June zipped her bag shut and ran out the door, once again chasing after the elusive Trunk of North America, knowing no one understood, realizing she would probably never find it, but determined to either find it or die trying.

    ________________________

    What I realized as I wrote this was that when my plot is made of fluff, it is difficult to write substance. I felt like the story went, May this, June that, May this, June that, back and forth, until the story could mercifully be over.

    Reply
    • KellyDaniel

      Yes, I agree with you. It is hard to write something other that froth if you are not pinning the goal on something significant. But it does force a focus on the characters. For example, your sisters, who in such a short passage, are cearly distinguishable.

      Reply
    • Magdalena

      I disagree with your thoughts on fluff!
      Wow, this is exactly what I have wanted to accomplish with my stories. You managed to describe the characters by using only dialogue. You didnt tell us. You SHOWED us. It was well done!

      Reply
  2. KellyDaniel

    She passed him everyday. He had exactly what she wanted.

    Anne had long felt a hollowness inside her; it had been growing for many months now until she almost felt that the core of nothingness had taken up nearly all of her being. She felt too light: light enough to float away. She had begun to think more about things too. What did she really want? Did this new path she was taking really fulfil her? Was it going to take away the feelings of self-loathing that she had been living with for so long and re-ignite the exhuberence of her youth?

    The determination that she had had at the beginning of the new epocha that she had envisaged for herself, and was trying to implement, had slowly started to seep away like a leaking pipe. She had felt herself faltering many times only to catch a brief snap-shot of herself in the mirror and, with the stark reminder of the disgust with which she held herself, she had managed to crawl through those times when she felt like breaking the promise she had made to herself.

    Now, however, watching him, she stopped and boldly peered at him through the
    glass. Would he notice her? Would he be as disgusted with her as she was of herself? Frankly, she no longer cared, her desire had reached such a pitch that her mind screamed her greatest need. She pushed through the door screening him from her and holding his face in her gaze she marched up to the counter. “How much for that Raspberry Mille Feuille?” she purred.

    Reply
    • Jessica

      I LOVE the ending. and here I thought we were supposed to write about something that could be interchangeable, but from what I’ve gathered, nothing could really replace a raspberry mille feuille! 🙂

      Reply
  3. Guest

    I’m sliding into bed next to you. Seizing your shoulders and
    straddling your hips, only to blow cold air over your eyelids.

    “You poor bastard”, I whisper.

    Cracking open one eye at a time, sleep still dribbling from
    your lashes, you know I’m no sugarplum dream.
    I’m not even the stuff of your nightmares. I’m just that niggling at
    your core as you heap one day upon another, ticking off the tiny blocks on your
    desk-pad calendar with a stiff grin and a wishy-washy sense of movement.

    I have no eyes of my own for you to glare into but when I
    gesture towards the bedside clock you know my meaning. It’s time to slam on the
    percolator with clammy hands, shower, shave, brush your hair, drink, eat, brush
    your teeth; pull on your cloths, your shoes and socks; sit on the edge of your
    newly-made bed and check the clock again. You’re exactly on-time. You couldn’t
    be late if you tried. And although you’ve never tried, you could write down the
    minutes required for every single morning activity:

    15 minutes for the coffee to percolate.

    15 minutes to shower while you
    wait.

    13 minutes to
    dress.

    9 minutes to drink your coffee intermittently
    while you use another 23 minutes to cook and eat your oats.

    1 minute to
    brush your hair and a minute to brush your teeth.

    5 minutes to put on your socks
    and shoes and to tie the laces.

    30 seconds to sit on the edge of your newly-made bed and
    check the clock again.

    A 45 minute ride to work and every morning the traffic is slow and aggressive. You never see the same faces ahead of, or behind you but the bored expressions make them look all the same anyway. Once you arrive, it’s a salute to the morning. A group rush for the second cup of coffee and the day whisks you ahead with it. It’s like a visit to Coney Island, blind-folded. So it’s not too bad except or when you wake at 03:00 in the morning and I’m blowing on your eyelids and all you can think about is 05:30 when the alarm will go off. The contents of your mind are lit up with the outstanding invoice of a 10 second bleach commercial you did last year. You’ve left it so long and now that payment is so goddamn urgent. And somewhere in the corner of your imagination, an old projector peels its way through a black and white film. The same image of the invoice is cut up into vertical lines that jump and skip across the wall of your eyes. They’re called phosphenes, you remember reading somewhere, but then the alarm goes off. It’s time, but don’t worry. I’ll sing “wakey wakey” to you in the same lullaby tones as your sweet mama did.

    Reply
  4. Kirsty Leigh

    I’m sliding into bed next to you. Seizing your shoulders and straddling your hips, only to blow cold air over your eyelids.

    “You poor bastard”, I whisper.

    Cracking open one eye at a time, sleep still dribbling from your lashes, you know I’m no sugarplum dream. I’m not even the stuff of your nightmares. I’m just that niggling at your core as you heap one day upon another, ticking off the tiny blocks on your desk-pad calendar with a stiff grin and a wishy-washy sense of movement.

    I have no eyes of my own for you to glare into but when I gesture towards the bedside clock you know my meaning. It’s time to slam on the percolator with clammy hands, shower, shave, brush your hair, drink, eat, brush your teeth; pull on your cloths, your shoes and socks; sit on the edge of your newly-made bed and check the clock again. You’re exactly on-time. You couldn’t be late if you tried. And although you’ve never tried, you could write down the minutes required for every single morning activity:

    15 minutes for the coffee to percolate.

    15 minutes to shower while you
    wait.

    13 minutes to
    dress.

    9 minutes to drink your coffee intermittently
    while you use another 23 minutes to cook and eat your oats.

    1 minute to
    brush your hair and a minute to brush your teeth.

    5 minutes to put on your socks
    and shoes and to tie the laces.

    30 seconds to sit on the edge of your newly-made bed and
    check the clock again.

    A 45 minute ride to work and every morning the traffic is slow and aggressive. You never see the same faces ahead of, or behind you but the bored expressions make them look all the same anyway. Once you arrive, it’s a salute to the morning. A group rush for the second cup of coffee and the day whisks you ahead with it. It’s like a visit to Coney Island, blind-folded. So it’s not too bad except for when you wake at 03:00 in the morning and I’m blowing on your eyelids and all you can think about is 05:30 when the alarm will go off. The contents of your mind are lit up with the outstanding invoice of a 10 second bleach commercial you did last year. You’ve left it so long and now that payment is so goddamn urgent. And somewhere in the corner of your imagination, an old projector peels its way through a black and white film. The same image of the invoice is cut up into vertical lines that jump and skip across the wall of your eyes. They’re called phosphenes, you remember reading somewhere, but then the alarm goes off. It’s time, but don’t worry. I’ll sing “wakey wakey” to you in the same lullaby tones as your sweet mama did.

    Reply
  5. randall031

    The streetlight on the corner shone through a gap in the curtains, cutting diagonally across the foot of her bed, and making her old quilt, braided rug and nightstand strange and unfamiliar. Rubbing her eyes, Janie stood and shook off sleep. Perhaps she could do in the night what was impossible in the day.

    By the time she had locked the back door, Janie was having second thoughts. Maybe Joan had taken a vacation? Maybe she had left town unexpectedly for work? Still, it didn’t explain why she hadn’t called. Not last night nor tonight. Janie shivered.

    Three a.m. and the buses not yet running for the day. She had heard that you shouldn’t let your car sit too long without running the engine, and perhaps a drive across town to her sister’s apartment would get the kinks out of the old Chevy.

    Whispering a brief prayer to the car gods, Janie turned the key in the ignition and hoped. She turned it again and hoped harder. The third time the engine reluctantly turned over, and the car sputtered to life. Blowing on her cupped hands for warmth, Janie gave the car a minute before sliding it into drive and heading across town.

    The streets were deserted. Waiting at a red light, Janie wondered why she continued to sit, but felt powerless to move until the light changed. Signaling her turns in advance, slowing for pedestrian crosswalks, even watching for absent cyclists; she drove as in a dream.

    Reply
    • Magdalena

      This is good. It drew me in right away but it’s not clear what the MacGuffen is. Still, I am intrigued

      Reply
      • randall031

        I had thought the sister (Joan) would be the MacGuffen. Is it ok to use a person? But since this bit had already taken way more than the theoretical 15 minutes, I’d post what I had and see what happened. Thanks.

        Reply
        • Magdalena

          Why not? I used a person too. I liked it so it must have worked

          Reply
  6. MishaBurnett

    The Lord Of The Rings trilogy is a kind of an anti-MacGuffin story–the goal is not to find the ring, but to destroy it. In broad terms, any goal that a character has is in some way arbitrary.

    Reply
  7. Steve Stretton

    There it was. Featured in the window, it was the last known copy of the last known work of his favourite author. Pete hurried inside only to be met by a queue of twenty people, all apparently wanting the same tome. There was loud arguing between the sales assistant and the man at the front of the queue. Large and in a florid pink shirt, he was querying the price in a loud voice all could hear.

    “Twenty thousand dollars, that’s a rip off. You should be investigated by the authorities. You’re taking advantage of its rarity. That’s an outrageous price. I’ll give you twelve thousand, not a cent more.”

    Pete groaned, he could afford five hundred dollars, no more. It was not going to be his tonight.

    The sales assistant was insistent.

    “The current best offer we have is twenty thousand dollars. If you can’t better it please leave.”

    The man pulled out his cheque book.

    “I’ll make it fifteen thousand. Look, I’ve written the cheque. You have to take it. Give me the book.”

    The salesman hesitated, then accepted the money and handed over the book.

    The following day, to his surprise was the very same book in the very same window. Alongside was a small note, “Hurry, last copies left, make an offer.”

    Pete hurried inside. Maybe this time.

    Reply
    • Jay Warner

      I like it! A nice twist that makes me want to know more about Pete’s obsession with the book and author.

      Reply
    • Paige Nguyen

      I also enjoyed the twist- evil scheming booksellers! I hope Pete doesn’t gamble often 🙂 It sounds like he has a problem.

      Reply
    • Bethie Bea

      Poor Pete, such a gullible fellow. But he made me laugh.

      Reply
  8. Paige Nguyen

    Hello everyone! I’m Paige- a first time visitor. I usually write in the fantasy genre, but I decided to try to write outside my comfort zone in order to broaden my skills. So excuse my stumbling attempts 🙂 I greatly appreciate critiques and compliments!

    The ladies gathered around the judges’ table grasping their
    purses in gloved hands, their prim little hats impenetrable to the fairground’s
    dusty air. “Ladies, ladies!” boomed a short rotund man sporting a mustache much
    too large for his face. “We will have the results here in just a few minutes.
    We kindly ask for your patience as the judging concludes.”

    A lady in the back craned her neck and tried to look over a
    sea of permed heads at the long table. She picked nervously at her white gloves.
    “Gloria, calm yourself down now, you look as nervous as a long tailed cat in a
    room full of rocking chairs!” exclaimed the woman standing next to her. She had
    her hat set at a jaunty angle and, in Gloria’s opinion, wearing a shade of
    lipstick one was more likely to find on a floozy. “You know what’ll happen if
    Patsy wins this year. The whole town will be divided and I don’t want to have
    to pick sides every time I go into the hairdresser’s,” grumbled Gloria.

    On closer inspection, a split could be seen in the crowd. One
    side seemed gathered around a broad shouldered lady who tapped her foot and
    shot scathing looks at her adversary, a shapely woman wearing an ill-fitting
    summer dress with her own gaggle of supporters. Betty fanned her face with a
    fairground program and whispered to Gloria, “Well, maybe if Jean would learn to
    sew her dresses to cover what the good Lord gave her, people wouldn’t believe
    them rumors about her and Pastor Lawrence.” “You don’t believe them?” asked
    Gloria, raising her eyebrows, but before Betty could answer the man’s voice cut
    through the crowd. “Alright ladies, we have our winner,” he mopped his forehead
    with a handkerchief and tried to look jovial. “This year’s first place prize
    goes to,” the sea of permed heads and hats leaned in as one, “Miss Suzanna
    Holcomb!” The whole room deflated like an old party balloon as a girl in
    braided pigtails came sauntering up to hold her prize winning squash and have a
    picture taken with the papers. The announcer looked apologetically at the two
    women standing with their eyes wide, purses hanging dejectedly from their
    wrists and then made his quick exit.

    Reply
    • Magdalena

      Good stuff! I love small town stories and these types of characters!

      Reply
      • Paige Nguyen

        Thanks Magdalena! I had no idea what to write about, but I tried to think of the most meaningless goal possible and out came- a squash contest! haha.

        Reply
  9. Magdalena

    She looked across the cafeteria and spotted him right away in all his promised glory. The black leather jacket outlining a large muscular physique was a bit out-of-style, maybe even dowdy, but he more than made up for it in looks. . The visiting German student was better looking than rumored and must have stood at about 6’3″. He must have felt her gaze because he smiled at her then, his teeth in perfect rows. Nina looked away, not wanting to be obvious. But she couldn’t contain a feeling of vindication. He would be the perfect revenge.

    She only had a week before he returned to his country. That was all she needed, really. Anything more would get too sticky. She needed him to kiss her and have it get back to Ryan. She was desperate to get even with him for cheating on her with that revoltingly cute little Chinese girl who giggled at everything that came out of his mouth. He had met her during a semester abroad in Taipei.

    The worst part was that she had stupidly watched all his travel videos, never once questioning who the girl in the background was. It never occurred to her that he would cheat on her AND flaunt it right under her nose! He was giving her a giant clue and she had been idiotically naive.

    The German student was perfect. It would show him how much culture and good taste she had; that he wasn’t the only one who discussed foreign films and took more than the required language course.

    Reply
    • Jay Warner

      very entertaining. your writing style is very free and easy, perfect for this essay.

      Reply
      • Magdalena

        thank you!

        Reply
    • Paige Nguyen

      Funny and enjoyable! What an interesting choice of MacGuffin, and the poor German guy doesn’t even know it’s him! 🙂

      Reply
  10. SBibb

    Intriguing. I especially like the note about whether or not the item in question can be interchanged with something else, since that helps clear up the idea of what the problem of what a MacGuffin can be.

    Reply

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