Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The MacGuffin

We all want it, but we can't all have it. The MacGuffin is a term that Hitchcock used to refer to a physical element in stories that drives the plot forward. According to him, in a crook story it is usually the necklace and in a spy story it is usually the papers. If you watch television during the eighties then you know that the MacGuffin was often the disk. On those shows it seems like everyone was storing their most valuable secrets on 3.5" floppy disks. Whoever could find the disk first is the person who could use it for personal gain. The villain could use it to blackmail someone or the detective could use it to save the girl.


The great thing about a MacGuffin is that there is only one. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but everyone wants it and only one person can have it. This puts the characters at odds with each other, creating the conflict that makes the story interesting. Unlike the non-physical plot elements, such as the role in a play, there is no room for compromise among the characters. Either a person has the MacGuffin or he doesn’t. If the MacGuffin is a painting, then one person might want it to hang on his wall at home. Another person might want it for a museum, so that everyone may enjoy it. And yet another person might want to destroy it because it reveals his crime. If we do nothing but let these three characters search for the MacGuffin,  they will encounter each other and be at odds with each other throughout the plot.