Small object of desire #10 – The MacGuffin

I love the movies. Film, cinema, whatever you want to call it gets me in the solar plexus. I can eat movies for breakfast, lunch and dinner twice over. It’s safe to say that I’ve learnt more about telling and writing stories from movies than I have from reading them in novels. I think I bring a lot of that sensibility to how I approach writing poems.

But I didn’t know what a MacGuffin was until last year, when I was invited by the poet Simon Barraclough, to take part in Psycho Poetica to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hitchcock’s film, Psycho. Basically, 12 poets divided the film into 12 sections (“Oh, we have 12 vacancies. 12 cabins, 12 vacancies.” Norman Bates) and each wrote a 2 minute poem about their section. We performed the poems in the same sequence as the film.  

So the MacGuffin. I came across the term when I was researching for Psycho Poetica. You’ll have seen it many a time in the movies but may not be familiar with the term if you’re just an ordinary punter and not a student of film.

Rosebud in Citizen Kane:

Orson Welles, explaining the idea behind the word “Rosebud,” said, “It’s a gimmick, really, and rather dollar-book Freud.”

The briefcase in Pulp Fiction:

Tarantino has said that he doesn’t know what the otherworldly glow is in the briefcase, and that it was simply written into the screenplay as an intriguing MacGuffin. Samuel L. Jackson says he asked the director what was supposed to be inside, and was told “Whatever you want it to be”.

That hasn’t stopped fans speculating about what the briefcase contains. The most popular concensus is that it contains the soul of Marsellus Wallace.

The ring in Lord of the Rings: 


Tolkien had this to say about idea behind the ring: “I should say that it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or lesser degree, out of one’s direct control.”

 A MacGuffin is the unobtainium in Avatar, the ark of covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the antique guns in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and of course, the $40,000 in Psycho, a film by the man who popularised the term.

You get the drift. It also appears in novels and plays too.

Essentially, a MacGuffin is about nothing. Nothing at all.

Let me qualify that.

The MacGuffin is much more important to the characters in a story than it is to the function of the story for audiences.

Put another way:

A MacGuffin is usually an object that motivates the actions of characters, while having little actual meaning to the plot. It was Hitchcock’s term for the device or plot element (an item, object, goal, event, or piece of knowledge) that hooks the viewer’s attention or drives the action of the plot. At first, it seems vitally important to the film characters, but often turns out to be insignificant after its purpose has been served.

Often, a MacGuffin is central to the plot of thrillers, spy movies, heist stories and the like. It usually means that the characters in the story will base their actions on getting, controlling or destroying the MacGuffin but by the time we get to the resolution, the significance of the MacGuffin is of no consequence to the playing out of the story. 

Being the card carrying geek that I am, the etymology of the term was of great interest to me. Its origins are shrouded in obscurity and even Hitchcock couldn’t pin it down. In his 1966 interview with director-film critic, Francois Truffaut, he said:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train.

One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”

And the other answers, “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin.” 

The first one asks “What’s a MacGuffin?” 

“Well,” the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.”

The first man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,” and the other one answers “Well then that’s no MacGuffin!” 

Even the story of the origins of the MacGuffin is itself a MacGuffin. The point is the story isn’t about what was in the package. The story is about one man telling another to mind his own business.

When it comes to composing a story, I liken the MacGuffin to passing ‘go and collecting £200’. 



Small object of desire #11 – Story (Drama)

One of my most enduring memories comes from the day writer and literary icon Kurt Vonnegut came to give a storytelling, life and everything lecture at the university I was attending. 

Just as an aside – the word ‘icon’ is one of the most over-used, no, abused words in the English language. These days it’s foisted on us by the media and PR agencies in reference to any two-bit celebrity soaking up their alloted 15 minutes in the limelight. 

But I digress. Back to Kurt Vonnegut and Story. 

First of all, there I was sitting 2 rows away from the man who wrote a book, Slaughterhouse Five, that I found hugely inspiring when I read it as a teenager. I could almost reach out and stroke his whiskers. 

Then, what he had to say about storytelling and why we need drama in our lives was funny, enlightening and, not to overstate the case, genius. It blew wide my preconceptions about what storytelling is wide open. I’ll try and paraphrase the essence of his theory here. 

He introduced his lecture by saying: People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories. Let’s look at a few examples.

He drew an empty graph on the board:

and explained that time moves from left to right and happiness from bottom to top. Then he said, “let’s look at a very common story arc. The story of Cinderella.”

It starts with her terrible life – the wicked stepmother, the ugly sisters, the cleaning out of the cinders. Then she gets an invitation to the ball. Wow, things are looking up! Her fairy godmother turns up and provides the dress, coach and shoes (let’s not forget the shoes!) she needs to go to the ball. Much, much better! She goes to the ball and gets to dance with the prince. Her happiness quotient is definitely on the up and up now!

But then the clock strikes midnight. She has to go. Back down the graph towards misery and scrubbing fireplaces but it’s not quite as bad as before because she’s had this life-affirming experience. Then wonder of wonders, the prince finds her, weds her and they live happily ever after. The happiness quotient is off the scale! And the graph looked like this:

He said: People LOVE that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this.

Then he wiped the board clean and said: “Now let’s look at another popular story arc: the disaster.”

Ordinary day in an ordinary town. Things are carrying on in their normal way then something awful happens! A child falls down a well! The whole town gathers to try and save her. Old tensions threaten to boil over but this tragedy is bigger than the quibbles between neighbours. Old quarrels are resolved as they band together to save the girl. They do and all’s well that ends well. But this time, they can look forward to better relationships with their fellow townsfolk. 

The graph looked like this:

He said: People LOVE that story! This story arc has been written a thousand times in a thousand tales. And because of it, people think their lives are supposed to be like this.

But…real life tends to look like this:

Most people’s lives don’t veer very far away from this model. Sure, there are ups and downs but nothing that will be recounted for thousands of years. Vonnegut said:

But because we grew up surrounded by big dramatic story arcs in books and movies, we think our lives are supposed to be filled with huge ups and downs! So people pretend there is drama where there is none.

In other words, we tend to want to create drama in our lives. It’s why we watch boxing matches – for the drama of watching two men pummel each other, sometimes to the death. It’s why we go to gigs in massive arenas – to get that religious feeling of being close to God. And so on.

I would argue that most of us don’t want our lives to be overly dramatic. Thankfully, that’s what stories are for. The problem is a lot of the time authors of stories (and for the sake of argument I’m including ALL mediums of storytelling in this round up) don’t give us what we want. They don’t understand the nature of drama. We’ve all seen and heard crappy, formulaic films, songs, even news reports. 

I say: if you’re going to beg my attention for 3 minutes (song), 2 hours (film) or a few weeks (a novel) please give me drama, I beg you. I might not want it in my life but I sure do love it in my stories. That’s exactly what Mr. Vonnegut gave me when I gave up an hour of my life to go and hear his lecture. 

Entertain me or be damned!




Small object of desire #10 – Idiosyncrasy

Yes I know, idiosyncrasy is not an object. But I’m a poet and us poets own licentia poetica (that’s poetic licence to you and me) like we don’t own cold, hard cash. In any case, I covered myself when I defined the parameters within which this blog would operate (see SOOD #9). 

Anyway idiosyncrasy…..n. a behavioral attribute that is distinctive and peculiar to an individual.

So a very particular thing then. Particularly when you are considering the reasons why you like one thing and not another. I like the music of Radiohead and I like this video for the lead track, Lotus Flower, off their new album, The King of Limbs.

Thom Yorke’s dancing is…well…idiosyncratic. I like the total commitment he gives to dancing in this very strange way. It’s as brilliant as it’s bizarre. The king of limbs indeed.

So some very idiosyncratic dancing and music from a very idiosyncratic band then. 


Small object of desire #8 – Conceptual Thinking

I nailed my colours to the mast when I claimed that this blog is about popular culture so I thought I’d better declare my stance. This definition from Wikipedia (there’s a subject for a future post!) encapsulates what I couldn’t quite put into words:

Popular culture (commonly known as pop culture) n. the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images and other phenomena that are deemed preferred per an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century.


To that I’ll add: the cerebral, the kitsch, the whacky, the bizarre, the chin-stroking, the brow-furrowing, the joyful, the oh-my-days, the philosophical, the fashion, the jazz, the jump-out-of-my-seat-and-holler, the literary, the photographic, the…the…the…as I said ANYTHING COULD HAPPEN.

Small object of desire #7 – The body

In Voluptas Mors by Phillippe Halsmann in collaboration with Salvador Dali

The body, in one form or another, features a lot in my poetry. A theme that I keep returning to is: what connects the living to the unborn to the dead? I think it is corporeality. The body is how we experience and interact with the world so when I see a trompe l’oeil image like this, I get all excited. I’m easily pleased.

Usually when I see a skull, I think of death. Or more accurately, I think of the absence of life. This image, with the nubile female bodies making the shape of a skull, leads me to thinking “there’s life even in death”. 

Small object of desire #6 – Inspiration – This has to be one of the most innovative websites on the internet.

I like the lateral approach it takes to disseminating information and the interactivity. 

I like the pretty, serious, nostalgic, contemporary, funny, thought-provoking still and moving images. 

I like the surprising snippets of music covering everything from classical to hip hop to ragtime to rock to ethereal to whacky – “I brush my molars for two whole minutes because they are mine.”

I like the way that you can change the sliders on the moodstream board to suit the way that you’re feeling at a given time. For me, this can go from lively to nostalgic in the space of 5 minutes. 

I like the way it feels as if all human life is here. It’s plainly not but it gives a damned good impression of it.

I come here when I’m sick of writing about how to start a portable loo business or shopping channels in my other writing persona of copywriter.