A Macguffin, or Mcguffin, is a literary device used frequently in stories, plays and films. It is usually an object that motivates the actions of characters, while having little actual meaning to the plot. The term was coined by director Alfred Hitchcock, and has become a common description for the plot device.
Often, a Macguffin will be central to thrillers, spy stories and adventures. The object usually has power or significance of some kind that may be mystical or practical. Most of the characters in the story will base their actions on the Macguffin, although the final result of their actions will usually be of greater significance than actually getting, controlling, or destroying the Macguffin.
Alfred Hitchcock first explained the term at a 1939 lecture to students at Columbia University. According to him, it appears in many stories but particularly in spy and thriller tales. He later clarified his remarks, saying that the device is actually nothing at all. A Macguffin’s purpose is to motivate the characters into action, and its own powers are rarely executed to much effect.
Examples of the use of the plot device are numerous particularly in movies. The Indiana Jones films frequently revolve around a Macguffin, like the ark of the covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the crystal skull in the 2008 installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Other frequently cited examples are the statue in The Maltese Falcon and the Green Destiny sword in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Occasionally, Macguffins can actually be characters in the story. Director George Lucas refers to the robot R2-D2 as a Macguffin in the film Star Wars, as many characters spend the entire first film searching for him. Similarly, the search for Private James Francis Ryan propels much of the action in Saving Private Ryan, making the character a device of sorts.
There are no rules on how many Macguffins can be active in a film at one time, although multiple Macguffins are usually only found in farce or broad comedy styles. In the recent hit Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the letters of marque, chest of Davy Jones, and Jack’s compass are all consistently used as motivating items that end up being fairly unimportant. Perhaps the winner of “most Macguffins in one film” goes to the 1970s comedy What’s Up, Doc? in which the large cast of characters spends the entire film chasing four identical suitcases, each with different contents.
Macguffins provide a great way to keep a plot moving forward, but writers must be aware of the possible traps. If you spend too much time on the device, it can become the center of the plot instead of the main motivating object. As Jon Turtletaub, director of the popular National Treasure films pointed out, by the time you find the treasure, something else should be more important. The relationships, gains, losses and discoveries made by the characters on their journey should always be more important and affecting than the final discovery of the wily Macguffin.