(SPOILERS: The Matrix, Inception, Casablanca)
I recently had a request to post about the term “MacGuffin” (sometimes spelled McGuffin) in more detail. I covered this a little bit in my post on the thriller genre. MacGuffins are important in thrillers, but they come into play in many genres.
I define the MacGuffin as the object or goal that the characters' mission is focused on. For example, in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) it is the idea that Cobb and his team are trying to implant in Fischer’s dreams. In Casablanca it is the letters of transit. In Sweet Home Alabama, the divorce papers. In Avatar (written by James Cameron) it’s the goofily named Unobtanium. In The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) it’s the lost groom. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) it’s the Ark of the Covenant
In a lecture at Columbia University, Alfred Hitchcock defined the MacGuffin this way: “It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” Hitchcock believed the more generic the MacGuffin was the better since the audience didn’t really care about it.
George Lucas, on the other hand, thinks the MacGuffin is crucially important. In a Vanity Fair article he said, “the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen.”
I side with Hitchcock. It’s not that the MacGuffin can’t be interesting – certainly the MacGuffin in Raiders of the Lost Ark is interesting. But we don’t go see the movie to find out what happens to the Ark of the Covenant. We go to see Indiana Jones quipping his way through daring action set pieces.
Inception tells us what the idea that Cobb must implant is, but do we really care? It could be just about anything and the movie would still work as well. It’s simply a device to get Cobb and Arthur and Ariadne and the others into a dangerous dream world that will test their skills and force their characters to undergo internal change.
On the other hand we maybe care a little more about the groom in The Hangover. He is a person, after all. However he isn’t a person we know well. The characters we really care about are the groomsmen. We care about the groom because he’s their best friend and they’re responsible for him.
That’s the key to a MacGuffin, I think. We only care about it as much as the characters do. We care whether Indiana Jones gets the Ark of the Covenant because HE cares if he gets it. We like him, we’re rooting for him, we want him to succeed. And that makes the object of his quest important to us.
Sometimes the MacGuffin is actually the trigger that forces the character into the story. In Casablanca the letters of transit force Rick into a situation where he has to make a decision. Though the letters of transit are simply a mechanical plot device, the decision over what he’s going to do with them is extremely important. Again, we care because we care about whether Rick will end up with Ilsa or not. If Rick lost the letters but they found another way out of the city we wouldn’t really be concerned with the letters anymore.
I don’t think every movie has a MacGuffin, or at least not one worth identifying as a writer. And sometimes the MacGuffin just sets the story in motion and then fades into the background. Once the war starts in Avatar, does anybody really care about the unobtanium anymore – even the characters?
The important thing from a writing standpoint is not to make your MacGuffin overly complicated. If the scenes start to be all about the MacGuffin and not about the characters and their goals and the obstacles to those goals, then the audience will lose interest.
But that doesn’t mean the MacGuffin is never important. It is often the logical underpinning of the story and can provide the stakes or the ticking clock.
If the guys in The Hangover hadn’t lost the groom then the movie would simply be them trying to remember what they did the night before. Who would care? The fact that they have to find their buddy and get him back home in time for the wedding adds urgency and purpose to their actions.
In the third act of The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski), the MacGuffin is the codes for Zion that the agents are trying to extract from Morpheus’s head (how many of you remembered that?). What we care about, of course, is whether Neo can rescue Morpheus. And Morpheus’s life is really what Neo cares about. But the codes give the rescue urgency.
On a personal note, it’s interesting sometimes how these blog posts intersect my own writing. I’ve recently been struggling with an element of a story I’m trying to break. And while writing this I realized it’s because I was focusing too much on the mechanics of the MacGuffin when I should have been focusing on the antagonist’s motivation.
So don’t get too hung up on your MacGuffin…but make sure your characters do!