Writing is hard work. If you search the web for writing tips, a large portion of the advice is just ways to trick yourself into writing. Since writing is so tough, writers have come up with shortcuts to make creating a story quicker and more efficient, such as writing prompt lists and all manner of story element generators. One of my favorite writing shortcuts is the MacGuffin.
All characters should have goals, but when you’re writing something focused on fun and action, the specifics of the goal doesn’t matter as much as the conflict it produces. If you’re writing a fantasy story about characters hunting for treasure, the conflict over the treasure matters more than the specifics of the treasure itself.
“Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” could have been “Indiana Jones and the Search for the Spear of Destiny”, and the film would have been pretty much the same. You could still have the conflict with the Nazis, the travel across the world, the search for Indy’s missing mentor, the burning bar… The only thing that would change is the name of the object they’re all chasing.
Similarly, in Back To The Future II, much of the conflict centers around retrieving a sports almanac so it cannot be used to change the future. However, the almanac could have been a diary, a newspaper, or a copy of Wikipedia, and the basics of the story would have been much the same.
Non-specific goals like this are called “MacGuffins”. A MacGuffin can be a great shortcut to getting conflict going without investing too much time in giving your characters detailed backstories and motivations. Skipping right to the conflict can help you keep up your energy and passion for writing. Again, this trick is for stories focused on fun, humor, action… light reading.
Basic MacGuffin Plots:
- Two armies in search of [Whatever], the ultimate weapon to destroy the other
- The monster can only be killed by [Doesn’t Matter], an object of incredible magic and power
- If the evil wizard can find [Who Cares], he will bring a new age of darkness upon the earth
- The portal to hell can only be closed by [Magical Doohickey]
- For this year’s science project at Genius High School, the students will be competing to create the ultimate [Science Thingy]
A word of warning: MacGuffins make the writing process much faster, but a lot less meaningful. So use with caution.
What is a MacGuffin?
A MacGuffin is a story element that generates conflict and moves the story forward, but doesn’t have any other story purpose. It’s a goal for characters to chase after, but the specifics don’t actually matter. You know a story is using a MacGuffin when the goal could easily be swapped out for something else without the story changing very much.
What are some MacGuffin examples?
Famous MacGuffins include the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the sports almanac in Back to the Future II, the Holy Grail in King Arthur stories, the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone) in Harry Potter, the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name, the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, The Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski, the necklace in Titanic, the Pink Panther diamond in the Pink Panther films, and essentially every stolen item in every heist film. Heist films are essentially “MacGuffin The Movie.”
Is using a MacGuffin good or bad?
A MacGuffin is a writing shortcut. Taking shortcuts is good for the writer, as it leaves more time for drinking, but it can make their work less impactful. If a writer uses a MacGuffin, it is important to add detail and meaning elsewhere in the story, such as by creating well-developed characters and interesting dialogue.