(SPOILERS: The Matrix, Inception, Casablanca, Saving Mr. Banks, The Hangover)
Screenwriters and filmmakers have lots of unusual terms and slang for storytelling concepts. One of those is the MacGuffin (sometimes spelled McGuffin). A MacGuffin is an object that is the basis for the characters' mission.
For example, in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch)
it is the letters of transit. 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 The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) it’s the lost groom. It doesn’t always have to be a physical object. In Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), the idea that Cobb and his team are trying to implant in Fischer’s dreams serves as a MacGuffin.
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 work just 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. He’s off screen most of the movie. No, the characters we really care about are the groomsmen. We care about the groom mostly because he’s their best friend and they’re responsible for him. If it turned out the groom was dead we’d feel worse for the groomsmen than the groom!
That’s the key to a MacGuffin. 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 extremely important to us.
Sometimes the MacGuffin serves more as a 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 whether Rick will end up with Ilsa or not. If Rick lost the letters but he and Ilsa found another way out of the city, we wouldn’t really be concerned with the letters anymore.
The MacGuffin in Avatar (written by James Cameron) is the goofily named Unobtanium. That’s what the humans are there to get. But once the movie gets going, do we really care about who gets the Unobtanium? It’s a story of colonists and natives and who gets control of the planet, not of minerals.
Similarly, in Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie heads to Alabama to get the divorce papers but the story quickly becomes about something else – though the prospect of divorce and marriage stays relevant. It’s like the contract for the rights to Mary Poppins in Saving Mr. Banks (written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith). It’s not a story about legal issues; they simply serve to bring the characters into conflict, both internal and external.
The important thing from a writing standpoint is to remember the MacGuffin is a device and not to make it overly complicated. If the scenes start to be all about the MacGuffin and not about the characters and their desires and the obstacles to those desires, then the audience will lose interest. Would you enjoy a scene in Saving Mr. Banks where they discussed the language in the ancillary revenue clause of the contract?
But that doesn’t mean the MacGuffin isn’t 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 about 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 (or stakes) 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 and provide a ticking clock – if they can’t rescue Morpheus in time, they will have to pull the plug and kill him to save Zion.
So don’t get too hung up on your MacGuffin… but make sure your characters do!