MacGuffin or Grail #2: Your Own Devices

In the first part of MacGuffin or Grail, I suggested a set of criteria for judging whether your particular plot device was one or the other. Having given my protagonists in THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER a panoply of grails, my question to myself was: Were they grails (legitimate goals) or mere MacGuffins or plot coupons (i.e. multiple MacGuffins)? 

Up until I penned THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER, I wrote other genres of speculative fiction. I started with science fiction and expanded quickly (probably too quickly for my own good) to write four novels of epic fantasy. (They were dreams, I tell you. I had to write them down!) I went from there to try magical realism, urban fantasy, alternate history, horror, steampunk and paranormal. All the while, I had been developing Gina ”Tinkerbell” Miyoko as a character and looking for a prime candidate for her first case. I’d written sketches of a number of plot lines I found intriguing when I stumbled across an article in Archaeology magazine about an undercover agent for the U.S. National Park Service whose job was to pose as a buyer of antiquities willing to skirt the law and acquire black market items. 

The fact that I was reading Archaeology betrays my ardent interest in things you can dig out of the ground. Here, I realized I’d hit the jackpot: I’d gotten an essential plot element, a character (Gina’s friend Rose Delgado), and a series of scenes for my first Gina Miyoko mystery. I also got to write about something for which I could use at least a fragment of the research I’d done on archeological digs in Mexico and South America. It wasn’t until I wrote this article that I thought of Dashiell Hammett’s Black Bird and wondered whether I’d created plot coupons or successfully shown my readers how an investigation can lead to a shifting succession of goals or grails—pursuit of one person leads to the pursuit of another, which leads to a place, which leads to objects with intrinsic value. 

If you’re an aspiring writer of mysteries, crime or detective fiction, you may well wonder this about your own plot elements. Are they substantive and pivotal or are they ”gimmicks” as Hitchcock put it? How can you tell the difference?

Back to the MacGuffin criteria, which suggest a series of questions you can ask about your plot’s particular ”grail” element or elements.

  1. Is your grail more than a means to an end? That is, is the person, place or thing being sought important in itself?
  2. Whether you’re writing in the real world or one you’ve invented, is the nature of the thing crucial to your plot?
  3. Are your characters’ reactions to it based in a reality your reader can relate to or are you manipulating your characters to make it seem more important than it inherently is?
  4. Do you take the time and page real estate to show your characters and your readers why this person, place or thing is so important, or do you simply introduce it in the first chapter and tell your characters and readers how valuable it is? i.e., (“Mr. Spade, have you any conception of how much money can be made out of that black bird?”)   
  5. Does it become more or less important as the story progresses? If it’s essential to your plot, then it stands to reason that it becomes more, not less important, and that the reader discovers more about it and its significance as they navigate your plot. It’s what they discover, and how and when they discover it, that propels the mystery element of your story. At the end of that story, the object may not be fully known, but the reader should feel as they’ve been on a real journey and ended up somewhere other than where they started out.

Consider Dan Brown’s sought-after relic in The Da Vinci Code. In Western culture, we take the intrinsic value of the Holy Grail (San Graal) for granted. The Grail is literally iconic, so there’s no need to invent its significance. Enter Brown’s plot twist (spoiler alert): the San Graal is the blood of Jesus of Nazareth, not the cup he used to symbolize the New Covenant. Yet it’s not literally his blood, but his DNA or bloodline. Hence, Brown’s Grail quest takes (ahem) a trinity of turns. A Grail hat trick. Inarguably, Brown’s entire plot would unravel if the Grail were an invented artifact with no intrinsic value. It’s true nature becomes increasingly important as the book progresses. 

In ”What is a McGuffin?” Michael Kurland suggests that the writer ought to be ”aware of the MacGuffin in your own story, carefully crafting it to meet your needs” thereby to ”improve the internal logic of the story, strengthen the characters’ motivation, and increase the story’s impact.”

That doesn’t fully resonate with me, not because I don’t strive for craft or internal logic, but because I’d prefer that my stories not rely for their central plot lines upon an interchangeable gimmick. Real world artifacts with intrinsic value carry their own stories with them and those stories can invest your novel with a richness you might not achieve if you created a grail out of the ether.

This is not to say I’m above constructing a plot around a MacGuffin so my characters can have cool adventures. But I believe it’s possible to stumble across a scenario that deeply intrigues me as a writer, that engages my characters because of who I’ve conceived them to be, and that intrigues my readers because I’ve been able to demonstrate a solid reason for that engagement.


If your curious about my use of “grails” in mystery fiction, please do read THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER, my debut detective/crime/adventure novel starring Gina “Tinkerbell” Miyoko private investigator. Also available as an eBook is the case that pushes her into the PI biz the novelette, “Tinkerbell on Walkabout.”


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