Friday, July 8, 2011

Magical MacGuffins

I love a fun story with a great MacGuffin. What is a MacGuffin, you ask? Let me tell you.

The term is believed to have been popularized by Alfred Hitchcock. It refers to anything, be it a person, goal, idea, or thing, that drives the plot. But it's just a tool so it doesn't really matter what it is, and in fact can be interchangeable. For instance one of the easiest examples are the Indiana Jones movies. The lost ark of the covenant in Raiders, those glowy stone things in Temple of Doom, and the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade are all MacGuffins. (There was no crystal skull movie. That is not the Indiana Jones sequel you're looking for.)

Some other examples are the Maltese Falcon, the travel papers in Casablanca, the target in any and every heist movie, and one of my favorites - the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino has said he didn't know or care what was in that briefcase because it didn't matter. I like to think it contained the soul of Marcellus Wallace.

There are two big examples in the Harry Potter stories: the horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows. Although in a lot of cases a MacGuffin can be interchangeable with another, I think it's safe to say there was one horcrux and one Deathly Hallow that were vitally important to the story and how the ending played out.

MacGuffins can make for an easy plot device but that doesn't mean you can be a lazy storyteller. The Indiana Jones movies were fun action-adventure stories but what really kept audiences coming back was Indy himself. He was a great character, one that audiences enjoyed spending time with. Same thing with Sam Spade and Rick from Casablanca. There has to be more to the story than just some neat antique statue or mysterious briefcase. A MacGuffin can be a lot of fun but your readers have to care about the characters and want to follow them on whatever journey that MacGuffin takes them on.

I've always wanted to write something fun with a really cool magical MacGuffin. When I started writing my web serial The Bradbury Institute, I knew there would be a MacGuffin, maybe more than one. I'm starting with a grimoire because I love the idea of a dangerous book. The first story is even named after the first MacGuffin, a grimoire called The Key of Darkness. I did some research about some ancient grimoires and came up with a few ideas for a fictional one of my own. That's not the only MacGuffin in the story. There's another one that definitely qualifies as "warm and fuzzy" but I'm not going to tell you more than that.

My two favorites are the briefcase from Pulp Fiction, and the final horcrux from the Harry Potter stories. Do you have a favorite MacGuffin?


Sutton Fox said...

Thanks for the reminder. I'd forgotten about MacGuffins and they're classic!

Just caught the opening for Raiders this am on the tv. My fav would be the lost ark.

Great post!

Sonya Clark said...

Thanks Sutton!

I love the original Indy movies, they're so much fun to watch.