A McGuffin: a device or plot element that catches the reader's attention or drives the plot. It is generally something that every character is concerned with. It is essentially something that the entire story is built around and yet has no real relevance.
This is a term invented by a friend of Alfred Hitcock and made popular by the man himself.
I was just curious if anyone uses this consciously as they write or if they can identify any McGuffins in their own work. If so what are they? What kind of things work best as McGuffins in science fiction and fantasy?
July 18th, 2003, 10:50 AM
Maybe it would help if you give some examples of McGuffins, from Hitchcock's movies or elsewhere. I've heard the term before, but I don't know much about it and the definition seems a little vague.
July 18th, 2003, 01:59 PM
If I understand the definition correctly, an example would be the spooky house from Hitchcock's movie, Psycho. Another example might be the Eye Of The World, from Jordan's book(you guessed it!) Eye Of The World. Am I understanding a Mcguffin correctly?
July 18th, 2003, 04:04 PM
The function of the MacGuffin is to give audiences something they can readily understand, something to feel comfortable with - a bit like a child's teddy-bear. It drives the plot forward and ties things togther, but really the point of the story tends to be altogether independent of it.
A popular example would be the stolen $40 000 at the beginning of Psycho. (It's been a long time since I've seen the movie, but its one of the more popular Hitcock films.) Why is it $40 000? The girl could have stolen anything. Really I think we just need a reason to get her to the Bates motel. By the end of the movie most people don't even really think about the money.
Maybe you could call it the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
In Lord of the Rings, one might call the ring a MacGuffin. One could argue against this, because the ring is not arbitrary - it needs to be some sort of allegory for power and temptation - but it doesn't need to be a ring. Maybe a better example might come in the beginning - Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday. It brings the central characters together with a common purpose of celebration, but really it could have been anything.
Another example might be the $70 000 in the movie Payback (one of my favorites). Or maybe Rita Hayworth (or her poster at least) in The Shawshank Redemption.
It's something I don't really tend to think about in my own writing. I was just curious if others did and thought it might generate some interesting discussion.
July 20th, 2003, 06:39 AM
I always thought Mcguffin's were things like the ring from LOTR - items that giver the barer ultimate power but maybe they're whatamit's? I'm sure there's a term for them somewhere!
Who knows, any way I tend to try and avoid them, my very first attempts at writing back when i was a teenager relied heavily on these kind of whatamits, I thought up all sorts of powers to endow inanimate objects with in order to give a story a reason for being told, looking back they read like games of heroquest and are probably best forgotten. I don't have any problem with things like these being used in a story and sometimes see the necessity of it, but tend not to like it so much when these items are the sole focus of a story.
July 20th, 2003, 04:32 PM
Ah, I get it now. Yes, I have one. Or at least, at the moment I do. I have a donkey. The donkey is responsible for causing main characters to meet, but then the donkey gets left behind out of necessity. I could have gotten the characters together some other way, but I chose the donkey. So you could, I suppose, call the donkey a McGuffin.
I think, though, that quite often writers get encouraged not to use such devices as they might be perceived as loose or sloppy plot threads. Which is silly, since the embezzling in "Psycho" is a wonderful part of the storyline. Horror stories I believe use McGuffins a lot to set things up and trick the audience. In the film "Scream" for instance, you're watching relatively famous star Drew Barrymore open the movie and you can't believe that they'd kill off Drew like some worthless extra. But then they do. So Drew herself is the McGuffin -- something that seems important to the plot, but turns out not to be.
July 21st, 2003, 09:56 AM
July 21st, 2003, 09:38 PM
Originally posted by Pollux V
No, Toto the dog isn't technically a McGuffin, but the Wizard of Oz is maybe one. Dorothy has to go see the Wizard to get back home to Kansas, and her traveling companions hope the Wizard can help them too. The Wicked Witch doesn't want Dorothy to go see the Wizard. Everything is concentrated on the Wizard -- the Wizard looks to be a very important figure in the plot. Then it turns out (SPOILERS) that the Wizard isn't really a Wizard, just an ordinary man who can't help Dorothy. It's the red shoes she's been wearing that will take her home. The Wizard seemed very important, but turned out not to be.
Likewise, the embezzled money in "Psycho" seems to be the main thread of the plot, but then turns out not to matter, as the important stuff are the murders that occur at the hotel the embezzling woman stays at.
At least I think that's how it works, more or less. Toto would probably have to be put in the extraneous, annoying animal companion category.
July 22nd, 2003, 10:32 AM
Ahh I see now. Thankee.
July 23rd, 2003, 02:49 AM
The briefcase that drives some of the action in Pulp Fiction is a classic MacGuffin too.