MacGuffins, and Stories about Things
Updated: Oct 30
By: Sunday Ellis Kessig
Last Updated on: November 28, 2021
Stories, like most things, can be broken down into pieces. Beginnings, middles and ends, prequels and sequels. But even more specifically, there are bits of stories that show up often, between different authors and genres and time periods. These are called tropes. For example, many stories have a hero, and a villain. A magic sword, a time loop, or an uprising of murderous robots who’ve decided they’d like to destroy humanity. These are all tropes, some more common than others. Now, some people insist that a good story must be purely original, like nothing that’s ever come before it. But frankly, this is an unrealistic goal, and tropes only become so re-used because there’s something good about them.
Sometimes you want to use a trope so that you don’t need to explain things more deeply. Let’s say you wanted to make a story about the world ending; you probably need a reason why. Now you could invent a species of underground fish people who’ve come from the future because only the juices from human brains can solve their world’s energy crisis... but the audience would likely be confused. So, if time-travelling fish people aren’t the point of your story, you could swap them out for a simple “alien invasion”. Most people understand the idea, since we’ve been telling stories about alien invasions for a century, and you can spend more time on what the story’s actually about rather than explaining your fish people.
On the other hand, there are certain tropes storytellers use not because they’re well-known, but because they have a purpose in the plot. For example, there is the trope of “mentor” characters, teachers who help the hero learn and grow. Mentors exist to explain how a hero can rise to overcome a villain, or obstacle, and because a teacher-student relationship is an easy thing to understand. These tropes are used to affect the story in a certain way. And this is where we get to MacGuffins.
MacGuffins, named by a writer in the 1930s, are a commonplace trope in modern stories. In fact, once you understand what and why they are, you’ll likely spot many in movies, books, and television. Generally, a MacGuffin is a thing, likely an object in the story. The whole point is that all the characters want it. In fact, entire stories center around the simple idea that people are after the MacGuffin. The form of the MacGuffin doesn’t really matter.
Some examples include the Holy Grail, from tales of King Arthur; the Death Star Plans, from Star Wars; and most of the Infinity Stones, from several Marvel films. In each of their respective stories, people want these things very badly, and most conflict in the plot comes from their fighting to get the MacGuffin. But, the MacGuffins don’t really do anything. The Holy Grail is a cup, and people want it because they want it. It could just as easily be a spoon, or a really cool hat. The Death Star Plans have a use eventually, if the right person gets them, but they’re not much more than a CD until then. And most of the Infinity Stones do next to nothing until the very end.
But, this doesn’t make them any less valuable. It just makes them MacGuffins. Possibly the best example would be the Maltese Falcon. In a story of the same name, the Falcon is a statue of a bird. It’s a nicer-than-average statue, but it’s still completely useless. However, the Maltese Falcon isn’t about the statue, it’s about the characters who want it. It’s about their fight, and the lengths they’ll go to for what they want. It’s compelling, and dramatic, even though the thing it’s about could be swapped for any other valuable object. The Maltese Falcon then, is completely a MacGuffin.
So, are MacGuffins a good or a bad thing? They aren’t really either. They’re less interesting than a useful object that everyone wants, but this does come with a benefit. Like replacing strange and confusing fish people with an alien invasion, making your story about a useless object lets you focus on other things, like characters, their motivations, and the consequences of them fighting for them.
The next time you see a film about spies fighting for a briefcase, or adventurers in search of a lost treasure, ask yourself if the thing they want could be anything else. If it could, know that this is a trope, called a MacGuffin. And then ask what this story is really about. Probably, it’s not the thing, but instead, the people who want it.