Friday, January 8, 2016

McGuffins. McGuffins Everywhere!

Have I got a warehouse for you!
An online discussion about McGuffins prompted this article.

What’s a McGuffin?  McGuffins are the things that makes the characters do things.  The late, great, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, who popularized the term, defined it as such:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" And the other answers, "Oh, that's a MacGuffin". The first one asks, "What's a MacGuffin?" "Well," the other man says, "it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well then, that's no MacGuffin!" So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

Hey!  How'd that McGuffin get up there?
One of the classic McGuffins that have ever been is the Maltese Falcon in the movie The Maltese Falcon.  While central to the overall plot, at least as the impetus for Humphrey Bogart and his merry band of fellow actors to all do the things they do, the titular Falcon itself is a thing that does nothing and is actually never in the film. It’s, as Bogart so eloquently states, “The stuff that dreams are made of.” It could easily be replaced by a chest of gold, a large diamond, or a tesseract.

McGuffin this!
Speaking of tesseracts, even if the McGuffin has some power, it can still be a plot device that makes people do things for “reasons”.  The reasons don’t have to be specified, but it can be as simple as WORLD DOMINATION or the power of love—1.21 gigawatts, anyone?  Essentially, the bad guys want the McGuffin because of power, or greed, or revenge or what have you.  Insert the Deadly Sin of your choice.  The good guys want to stop the bad guys, and thus must get the McGuffin, beat the bad guys, or both.

It should be understood that McGuffin isn't necessarily a derogatory term.  It can be applied that way, and often is, but most plots center on the getting or the destroying of the McGuffin.  This provides the characters, good and bad, with one of the reasons they’re doing what they’re doing.  The term itself is simply a means of describing an item that provides the characters’ motivation.

McGuffin’s aren’t just a good thing, they’re often necessary.

The trick to a good McGuffin is to make it something realistic enough for the world of the characters, a Sword of Truth, the Book of Eli, or the Lost Sankara Stones—what the thing is isn’t so important as how the characters all relate to it.  To quote Hitchcock again, “[It’s] what everybody on the screen is looking for, but the audience don’t care.”

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