So recently I composed an article for the website Bang2Write about the use of MacGuffins in literature. For the full article, just click the link at the bottom.
The MacGuffin: What it is and How to Use It
The statue from The Maltese Falcon. The grail from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. “Rosebud” from Citizen Kane. They all have one thing in common: they are MacGuffins; persons, places, or things which the characters are all seeking, but which have little plot value of their own. The MacGuffin is the ultimate “prize” of every quest movie ever made. It is the microfilm from spy movies, the trophy from sports movies, and the mission objective from war movies. The MacGuffin acts as a sort of temporary stand-in, creating an immediate plot point as the story gradually pivots from centering around objects to centering around characters. Proper use of the MacGuffin can serve to keep the plot moving at a rapid pace, whilst improper use can result in limp writing. Here are six tips to keep in mind when using the MacGuffin:
Tell us Why It’s Important…
If your protagonist is going to spend most of the movie/book searching for “the documents”, it is important to relay at least once to the audience why they are important, why the hero wants them, and the possible implications of not retrieving them. If the MacGuffin is made too vague, the audience will not be able to properly empathize with the protagonist.
To sum up: Tell us why the heck we should care about the MacGuffin.
…But Don’t Make It Too Important
It is important to have balance when using MacGuffin’s in your writing. While it is important to properly explain what your MacGuffin is and why your character wants it, remember that your story ultimately serves your characters, not your plot devices. It is considered a good rule of thumb to establish the MacGuffin in the first act, then all but forget it for the rest of the story. Consider the above-mentioned Citizen Kane: after the mystery surrounding “Rosebud” is established early on, focus is placed more and more on Kane himself and the course his life took.