MacGuffin or Grail #1: Is there a Difference?
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According to Webster’s dictionary, a MacGuffin (McGuffin or maguffin, as you prefer) is: ”an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.” (emphasis mine)

Alfred Hitchcock, who coined the term, described a MacGuffin as: ”The device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after… The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.” (emphasis mine)

Wikipedia, drawing on works by authors Nick Lowe and Bruce Sterling, goes a bit further in making several crucial points about the MacGuffin. It is ”….a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations. .…Usually, the MacGuffin is revealed in the first act, and thereafter declines in importance. It may reappear at the climax of the story but sometimes is actually forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively identified as plot coupons.” (emphasis mine)

Possibly the most famous MacGuffin of crime fiction is the titular Maltese Falcon in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel. The book was adapted to film several times, most notably in a 1941 version directed by John Huston and starring the inestimable Humphrey Bogart as detective Sam Spade. It’s arguable, though, that the plot device dates back to Arthurian legend and beyond. The Holy Grail, the Holy Lance, and a sliver from the True Cross have certainly been used as plot devices in a slew of stories. I submit as evidence such tomes as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and films ranging from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to the Monty Python sendup.

Science fiction and mystery writer Michael Kurland writes in his Gotham Writers article ”What is a McGuffin?” (https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/articles/what-is-a-mcguffin) that, in his estimation, the MacGuffin is as indispensable to fiction of any genre as a keel is to a boat. Kurland seems to be saying that any motivational vehicle in a novel is automatically a MacGuffin—a mere plot device.

Is it?

I, for one, resist the idea that there’s no difference between a MacGuffin, in the sense that Hitchcock conceived of it, and a goal that is legitimately pivotal or essential to the telling of the story which, if removed, would cause the story logic to collapse, or at least make it a different story. I think the distinction lies in the descriptions above, which suggest a set of MacGuffin criteria.

  1. A MacGuffin is merely a means to an end. As Webster and Kurland suggest, it has no intrinsic value; the point of The Maltese Falcon is not the value or significance of the object, itself, but the characters’ reactions to it—in this case greed. The Maltese Falcon might just as easily have been a Faberge Egg or the Holy Grail. (I’d argue that the characters’ reactions are the point of all fiction, MacGuffin or no, but that’s a different essay.)
  2. There’s often little or no explanation as to why the MacGuffin is so important. “Mr. Spade,” Casper Gutman asks Our Hero, ”have you any conception of how much money can be made out of that black bird?” Sam Spade does not, but Hammett tells us the Maltese Falcon is worth seventeen years of Gutman’s life and much bloodshed. Yet beyond a description of the bird’s provenance and monetary value, there’s not much justification for the amount of effort expended to find and possess it.
  3. The MacGuffin, since it is not the object of the story, is revealed early and declines in importance as the story goes on, possibly to the point that it never actually appears on the page or fails to put in an appearance in the climax of the story.

You might have noticed that the possible MacGuffins I mention above (the Holy Grail, et al) have something in common beyond being included in a raft of speculative fiction: they are all objects of archaeological or historical significance, hidden, smuggled, and sought after by the good, the bad, and the merely adventurous. The case I’d set my young detective on in my debut crime novel, THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER, contained a number of such real world artifacts; the working title of the book, TINKERBELL AND THE FOURTH GOD FROM THE LEFT, made mention of just one of these.

Were they MacGuffins or worse, plot coupons?

We’ll explore that question next time.

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MacGuffin or Grail #1: Is there a Difference? — 2 Comments

  1. I agree about only using the term MacGuffin when the item in question has no intrinsic value and no real explanation for why it matters — which is why I don’t think the Holy Grail really qualifies. It has a great deal of intrinsic value, and the story is usually quite clear about why it matters (or at least assumes the audience already knows and agrees). But I’ll grant that in many cases it does serve only to set the plot in motion and thereafter goes away, because the vast majority of the Grail-questing knights do not successfully find it.

    I had fun with a short story that put this trope front-and-center: The ?iret Mask.” Right at the start the character muses on how literally the only reason the object she’s stealing is so valuable is because so many other people have stolen or tried to steal it.

  2. There was a spy film ready to be released when the atom bomb was dropped. The studio yanked it, reworked the dialog a bit, and released it as a spy film about a secret process used to make the atom bomb.

    If you can change the motivating object that easily — they didn’t have to reshoot a single scene — it’s a MacGuffin.

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