Table of Contents
- What is a MacGuffin?
- What is the Purpose of Using a MacGuffin?
- The Different Types of MacGuffins
- Different Filmmakers and Their Use of MacGuffins
- In Conclusion: How to Use a MacGuffin in Your Screenplay
What is a MacGuffin?
A MacGuffin is a type of plot device that is essential to driving the plot but not necessarily important within the story as a whole.
Story and plot are different parts of a screenplay.
- The story concerns the characters, themes and story world.
- The plot, meanwhile, is more to do with the narrative events of a film and its propulsion.
So a MacGuffin powers the plot but doesn’t affect the story. It’s a lubricant rather than something that fundamentally changes things in the story.
MacGuffins can take many forms. They are typically though a physical thing that serves as a useful tool in the screenplay to push the plot in a certain direction.
It’s hard to pin down the exact meaning of a MacGuffin. It can be a relatively malleable and hard to define plot device. But we’ve broken down some of the key elements of a MacGuffin and used some examples to illustrate.
What is the Purpose of Using a MacGuffin?
MacGuffins are plot motivators that can drive characters’ intentions and ambition.
- However, although the characters care deeply about this MacGuffin, the audience usually is unaffected or unaware of the importance of this plot device.
- The audience will see it. But only the characters themselves know its true importance.
- MacGuffins can hold immense power. Yet their exact significance within the plot is often hidden.
MacGuffins can also often distract characters from achieving their goals. Moreover, competition for the MacGuffin can set characters’ emotions and goals into conflict. Much like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
For example, the briefcase swaps hands multiple times in Pulp Fiction. All the characters that look inside stare in awe of its contents. Yet the audience is left out of the loop.
So ultimately, a MacGuffin is not important to the audience but is meaningful to the characters. So what’s the purpose of using one?
Well, a MacGuffin can be a brilliant and easy way to move the plot in a certain direction.
- It brings characters together and forces the plot into motion.
- In this way, it’s a focus. If the plot is lacking an anchor, the MacGuffin can provide just that.
- It’s ultimately not important to the story’s outcome. But for a brief period of time, at least to the characters, it feels like the most important thing in the story.
Sometimes it can be hard to auto-generate much-needed momentum for the plot. This is what a MacGuffin provides, a way of forcing the plot’s hand in a naturalistic way within the story world.
The Different Types of MacGuffins
MacGuffins can be anything – from the briefcase in Pulp Fiction to the Persian rug in The Big Lebowski to a specific character. It’s anything that can tie different character arcs together and drive the plot forward.
There are a number of different MacGuffin types. The best, most complex and interesting MacGuffins are usually the ones that are a mix of all different types. But, nonetheless, it’s helpful to know how exactly MacGuffins usually break down and manifest in varying ways.
1. Object MacGuffins
This is probably the most common type of MacGuffin. It will be an object that drives the characters or brings them together. The following are great examples…
- The Persian rug in The Big Lebowski.
- The briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
- The one ring in The Lord of Rings.
The characters might have a quest to find or destroy the object (as in The Lord of The Rings). Or the object might be a way of connecting a character with a new world (such as The Big Lebowski). Either way, the object is not what the story rests on. It’s, instead, how that object affects the characters’ lives and drives the journey that is meaningful.
2. Background Props
Background props include anything that characterises the setting. This could be furniture, paintings or even the colour scheme of a room.
- The painting of Madeleine in Vertigo is a good example of a background prop.
- In Vertigo, the portrait painting of Carlotta Valdes is used to trick the protagonist, Scottie into the antagonist, Gavin Elster’s plans.
- The painting is a catalyst that spurns Scottie into Elster’s twisted mind games.
- It’s a MacGuffin as it advances the plot and Scottie’s actions but the story goes on without the portrait in focus. So it’s an object that sets things in motion.
Background props can also be metaphorical i.e. a theme or motif embroiled in the movie. These are typically more symbols than props. But they can also drive the characters consistently throughout.
3. Mechanical Device Props
In general, spy movies regularly include props that look like everyday objects but hide a secret function. The James Bond, Mission Impossible and Kingsman franchises, for example, feature mechanical device props.
- For instance, James Bond’s Omega wristwatch in Die Another Day doubles as a laser to help Bond enter, antagonist – Gustav Graves’ Ice Palace.
- Ethan Hunt’s Gecko gloves in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol help Hunt climb the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world.
- Kingsman’s polished chestnut umbrella looks like a normal umbrella until the Kingsman agents use it as a weapon and bulletproof shield.
But the Fabergé egg in James Bond’s Octopussy is the perfect example of a MacGuffin. The Fabergé egg drives the plot from the opening shot onwards. It is ultimately dangerous for characters and drives their intentions. And even 009 gets murdered for having it in his possession.
These props help move the plot in a certain direction and can change a given situation. But they’re not an essential part of the story, more a plot device to get from one part of it to another.
4. Character MacGuffins
MacGuffins can also often take the form of a person. This person will drive the plot and put the journey in motion. They will typically be at the end of whatever the protagonist‘s journey is.
- In Apocalypse Now, Willard must track down Colonel Kurtz. Kurtz is the MacGuffin as he is the end goal for Willard’s eye-opening journey through Vietnam.
- In The Hangover, Doug is the MacGuffin after he goes missing and his three friends try and track him down.
- Saving Private Ryan, meanwhile, has the titular Private Ryan as the character MacGuffin. Captain John H. Miller is tasked with tracking down Ryan, the last remaining brother in a family of four brothers who have already been killed in the war.
In all these examples, the character is at the end of a journey. And in this way, they act as a MacGuffin. The plot is about the journey to find these characters rather than the characters themselves.
5. Conceptual MacGuffins
This type of MacGuffin will be an idea that drives the story. ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane is probably the most well-known and best example.
- Charles Foster Kane’s final word on his deathbed serves as a catalyst for the entire story. This is because reporter Jerry Thompson sets out to find out what ‘Rosebud’ means. And he spends the entire film piecing it together.
However, a concept or idea can also be attached to another type of MacGuffin in order to give it more weight. For example, the Horcruxes in Harry Potter serve as objects for the characters to try and source. But they’re more than just objects, they’re instead representations of Voldemort’s intentions and history.
With a conceptual MacGuffin, the characters are driven to uncover and understand something. This might well be attached and related to an object (or a series of objects). But it’s the bigger picture the characters care about, as they try to get to the heart of a big idea that serves as the backdrop for the story.
Different Filmmakers and Their Use of MacGuffins
There are a number of filmmakers who are continually associated with MacGuffins. This might be because of the genres they tend to work in. Or perhaps it’s just an attraction to the effectiveness of the MacGuffin.
Moreover, often their use of the MacGuffin demonstrates what is brilliant about their work. Such as tension in Hitchcock films, great character work in Coen Brothers films or sweeping cinematic storytelling in James Cameron films.
Hitchcock & the MacGuffin
The term ‘MacGuffin’ is said to originate from Angus MacPhail, an English screenwriter who was known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock popularized the term and used the device in many of his films.
In Vertigo, for example, Carlotta Valdes’ red pendant necklace is the film’s main MacGuffin. The object is the missing link which ties the plot together. And it’s the main protagonist‘s, Scottie, big moment of realization within the plot.
As Hitchcock famously shared in his definition of a MacGuffin, it’s…
“The thing that the characters on the screen worry about but the audience don’t care.“
Hitchcock also stated:
“My best MacGuffin, and by that I mean emptiest, the most non-existent, and the most absurd, is the one we used in North By Northwest. The picture is about espionage, and the only question that’s raised in the story is to find out what the spies are after.”
When analysing the actual word ‘MacGuffin’, the ‘guff’ part means nonsense. So in essence, the MacGuffin is used to throw the audience off the scent and its importance within the actual body of the story means very little. Hitchcock understood this better than any storyteller and it’s why his MacGuffins are so effective.
Tarantino & the MacGuffin
Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction arguably reinvigorated the MacGuffin and has probably its most famous contemporary iteration.
- In the film, the briefcase, which belongs to Marsellus Wallace, is prevalent throughout the movie.
- The briefcase swaps hands multiple times and once opened a warm golden glow emanates from it.
- Every character that opens the briefcase stares in complete awe of its contents.
- There are many suggestions as to what the briefcase holds. These include gold or diamonds and even Marsellus Wallace’s soul.
The audience never learns the contents of the briefcase. But it definitely contains something the characters care about pursuing. This shows how the suitcase motivates the plot. It connects the characters’ intertwining stories but does not affect the stories’ endings.
The Coen Brothers & the MacGuffin
Burn After Reading from the Coen Brothers features a CD disk.
- The whole plot revolves around the disk.
- The characters are in pursuit of this disk, containing what they believe is important CIA information. In fact, it contains the memoirs of Osbourne Cox.
Characters’ goals come together and different stories embroil around a useless disk. The disk is not important, and its actual contents are never revealed, just speculated on. But the disk serves as a brilliant anchor for the plot and for a host of vastly entertaining and memorable characters.
James Cameron & the MacGuffin
The Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic is another example of a MacGuffin. The necklace features throughout the film and is the one object that connects Jack and Rose in spirit. However, when Rose releases the necklace into the ocean, she is saying goodbye to her lover.
It is also symbolic as Jack died in the same waters. Rose has kept the necklace but now feels it’s time for Jack to reconnect with the Heart of the Ocean necklace. The necklace, therefore, is an object that forebodes meaning.
Again, this object affects the plot (the release of the necklace) but how the story pans out is inevitable. So the necklace does not affect the story’s outcome. It’s used as a way of encapsulating Jack and Rose’s grand love story. The necklace is not important. It’s the story it prompts that is.
In Conclusion: How to Use a MacGuffin in Your Screenplay
A great way to think of the MacGuffin is that it’s not about the destination but the journey. The MacGuffin is a catalyst for the story, it’s not the story itself.
Sometimes when writing it can be hard to think of naturalistic ways of moving your story along. And this is what MacGuffins are brilliant for. So if you’re stuck on a particular plot point or on how to generate a plot in the first place, think of how a MacGuffin might be able to help.
A MacGuffin could be the starting point for a plot or a way to solve a particular arc. But either way, it needs to be one realistically and convincingly built into the story world. It needs to feel like a pursuit that the character (protagonist or otherwise) genuinely cares about. Otherwise, it will feel like a transparent plot device.
When plot devices are at their best is when they feel credibly rooted in the story world and characterisation. They can serve as an anchor not only for your plot but for your best skills as a screenwriter or filmmaker. Different filmmakers‘ use of MacGuffins demonstrates this, deploying them to showcase the strength and style of their storytelling.
The MacGuffin might not ultimately be the most important part of your screenplay but it can be a vital catalyst to get it moving.
This article was written by Hannah Taylor and edited by IS Staff.
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