The Care and Feeding of a MacGuffin
As far as anyone knows Alfred Hitchcock was the first to use the term “MacGuffin.” He said it was “[T]he device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after… The plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.”
It might seem like he’s denigrating the value of his discovery, but remember that, as director, he came in after the writer had done his job. Everything always seems easier after the writer has done his job. And it took a good writer to build the structure of the MacGuffin into the plots so well that Hitchcock could ignore it and get on with making movies like The Thirty Nine Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Strangers on a Train.
The MacGuffin is the linchpin of the story; the gizmo, situation, or event that lies behind the motive.
Is it possible to write a story — even a mystery story — without a MacGuffin? Certainly. It’s possible to build a two-masted schooner without a keel, but the ship will be much harder to sail and may be prone to rolling over unexpectedly. The simple truth is that somebody has to be after something, and some force, human, animal, or elemental has to be in his way, or there’s no story.
Let’s look at the MacGuffin in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The plot involves murder, mayhem, romance, and deceit in San Francisco in the 1920s, and introduces Sam Spade, the PI from whom a whole school of particularly American private detectives has evolved. The MacGuffin in the story is the eponymous Maltese Falcon, the statuette of a bird about twelve inches high covered with black enamel. And under the enamel is – well as Casper Gutman, Hammett’s original fat man, tells Spade in the novel:
“Mr. Spade, have you any conception of how much money can be made out of that black bird?”
… “Well, sir, if I told you — by Gad, if I told you half! — you’d call me a liar.”
And a chapter later Gutman does tell him, spending over two thousand words in the telling. It seems, to abbreviate the long and lovely story, that a foot-high solid gold falcon encrusted with precious gems from beak to claw was crafted in 1530 at the order of Villiers de l’isle d’Adam, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta as a gift to Emperor Charles V. The gift was lost at sea, found and then lost again and, somewhere along the way, covered with black enamel to conceal its value.
Gutman could have just said, “Black bird; worth a lot of money.” Why two thousand words? Because if the bird isn’t rare, and romantic, and incredibly valuable, why would Gutman spend 17 years of his life hunting for it? Why not just rob a bank? Half a dozen people die pursuing or protecting the black bird, and Hammett had to make you, the reader, believe that the object was worth the blood spilled for it.
That’s a MacGuffin!
In many narratives the object is physical: a black bird, a rare manuscript, a one-of-a-kind postage stamp, an atomic warhead, an inheritance, the Naval treaty. But it can be something intangible like Communism or Freedom or winning an ice skating contest. It can be an ideal or a hatred or a delusion, or the orders of your superior officer. “Their’s not to reason why, their’s but to do and die.” Like that.
The MacGuffin motivates the story, and it matters not whether it be the villains or the heroes that do the moving. In The Maltese Falcon the black bird motivates Gutman, the villain; but in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison Lord Peter Wimsey, the hero, is motivated by a sudden and overwhelming infatuation with Harriet Vane, who, when he first sees her, is standing in the dock accused of murder. The MacGuffin is love. Sure the actual murderer is motivated by greed, but his greed doesn’t move the plot forward. Wimsey’s need to prove Vane innocent does.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the MacGuffin is the tale told by a ghost who tells Hamlet that Claudius, his uncle, murdered his father and married his mother to become king. All else follows from the beseeching of this vengeful spirit.
In Henry V what King Henry wants is France. The whole country. Now there’s a MacGuffin with size and majesty. And a lot of good wine.
In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, you might think the MacGuffin is Rebecca herself, but we can pin it down finer than that. The MacGuffin is the death of Rebecca. Or, even more precisely, the question as to how she died.
In Casablanca the MacGuffin is not the love affair between Rick and Ilsa, but an envelope containing several irrevocable “letters of transit” that can be used to escape to a neutral country. Their existence motivates the action and causes several deaths.
In Homer’s Iliad, the MacGuffin was Helen of Troy’s great beauty; “…the face that sank a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium,” as Marlowe put it. In real life the Trojan War was probably fought over land, or trade routes; but that doesn’t make nearly as satisfying a story.
Remember the old one-line master plot that goes: “An appealing hero strives against overwhelming odds to achieve a worthwhile goal”? Well, the MacGuffin isn’t merely the goal. It’s often also the reason for the overwhelming odds. Sam Spade’s partner gets murdered because the bad guys want the raven. Rick is forced into action because the bad guys want to prevent the letters of transit from being used.
Bad guys don’t ordinarily go around killing people and causing mayhem just to prove that they’re bad guys. They have some goal in mind. It might be an insane goal ‑‑ but there’s got to be some reason for what they do. In real life, of course, we don’t always learn the reason. But in a mystery story we should. After all, one of the main pleasures in reading a mystery story is knowing that, in the end, the mystery is going to be solved.