Modern triple A blockbuster films suffer with a MacGuffin problem.
The trope was coined by screenwriter Angus MacPhail but was brought to the viewing public’s attention by Alfred Hitchcock and it hasn’t left our screens since.
Too often we see characters motivated by an object which exists solely to push the plot forward. Ultimately, this object could be entirely interchangeable with anything else and barring a few cosmetic tweaks to the dialogue the narrative would remain the same.
We call this object of desire the ‘MacGuffin.’ If it is too obviously used merely as a plot device or comes across as inauthentic, the MacGuffin is often held up as a prime example of bad or lazy writing.
However, they are useful devices for us screenwriters to propel our characters into an adventure and ultimately start the story engine which leads to the greater growth and development that we love to see on our screens.
So, how can you solve the MacGuffin problem in the latest screenplay you are developing? Here are five tips to keep in mind when dealing with the tricky trope.
Audiences are naturally drawn to a question that the protagonist needs to find an answer to.
Have your characters chasing an object which is an embodiment of a larger mystery that it represents.
Agents J and K spend a large portion of Men in Black searching for ‘Orion’s Belt’ after receiving a cryptic clue from an alien visitor. It isn’t until much later on that we discover that it is nothing to do with the celestial body but has much more Earthbound origins.
By the time the pair have discovered this we aren’t all that concerned about the MacGuffin as there are greater conflicts that our heroes (and the rest of the planet) are involved in!
With only the most rudimentary understanding of narrative structure an audience knows that the thing which the protagonist wants (the MacGuffin) will typically hide its true importance until it is most dramatic to reveal it.
This is most evident in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade where having reached the place where the Holy Grail resides, Indy is forced to go and retrieve the grail from the cavern in order to save his father after he is shot.
The stakes were high enough during the narrative as our intrepid adventurers are racing against the Nazis to snatch the artefact, but now with personal stakes for Indy we are further invested in him retrieving it.
If there are constant stakes for the character who is holding onto the MacGuffin, we too will be invested in its fate.
In The Lord of the Rings we learn that the ring will slowly turn the wearer mad. There is therefore some real impetus for our characters to complete their mission before Frodo succumbs to the rings temptations.
Another example is the Diamond in Birds of Prey. Although there is plenty of exposition about account numbers and vast fortunes that are supposed to make us care about it, we only are truly invested in it once Cassandra Cain has swallowed it in an attempt to hide it… not realising that Roman Sionis isn’t above slicing her open to get it out. It now becomes a race against time to retrieve it from her whilst keeping her safe.
These MacGuffin’s work so well because there are ticking clocks attached to them. The journey to see that their use is fulfilled has to be completed before the time runs out and therefore there is automatically drama and urgency created around them.
We are less inclined to care about things than we are about people.
If the MacGuffin that you are creating has some humanlike qualities, the audience is far more likely to feel empathetic towards it and therefore invest in its fate.
Both Saving Private Ryan and The Hangover have our heroes looking for Ryan and Doug respectively, characters who we do not meet until the final act of the films. It is the search for them which is the driving force for the external journey’s that our characters are on.
This emotional attachment that we have to the thing that awaits our heroes at the end of the outward journey makes us far more likely to engage with the dilemma that these two have caused in going astray.
The MacGuffin is a trope which even the casual cinemagoer will be familiar with due to it being so firmly cemented in the pop-culture landscape.
A way around drawing derision for including it in your narratives is to be entirely transparent that you too know that the technique is a slightly hackneyed one.
You could do this by giving your MacGuffin such a contrived name that the audience understands that they too are in on the joke that this is something which could only exist within the landscape of the movie.
Both Avatar’s “Unobtainium” and The Lego Movie’s “Piece of Resistance” are a nod and a wink to the audience… see what we’re doing here…
Ted Wilkes is a writer and university lecturer from London, England. His areas of specialism are narrative design, Twenty-First Century visual cultures and the horror genre. You can find out more about his work over at tedwilkes.co.uk or watch his video essays on a variety of topics on his Youtube channel.
Featured image credit: Nicolas Peyrol