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’. 



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