Writing Is A Bad Habit: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of a.k.a. The MacGuffin

It’s that time again, folks, for your weekly Writing Is A Bad Habit article.  This week, let us tackle that mysterious source of plot generation, the mighty MacGuffin.  Be it a mysterious briefcase that glows, a lost statue, or the lost manuscript of Shakespeare, MacGuffins are those objects that everyone in a plot seems to want, yet are themselves often unseen or unknown.  It might be considered a bit of a hackneyed plot point, but many great books have been based on the premise of a hunt for a MacGuffin, like it or not.

Why is it that some MacGuffins put us off the books they are in, while others draw us in with their mystery?  There are quite a few reasons behind both of those, many of which are not related to the MacGuffin itself.  See, there’s nothing inherently wrong about using a MacGuffin, just as with many other tropes and plot devices.  It is rarely the plot device itself that makes for a bad bit of writing, but everything else around it.

That being said, I think there are a few important do’s and don’t’s about using a MacGuffin that center on the device itself.  It really centers on what makes a MacGuffin a compelling object to the reader, not necessarily the characters (though that is important as well).  Thinking about it, the two kinds of MacGuffins I have found the most compelling in fiction are the complete mysteries and the intimately understood ones.  It is when the narrative around the object hangs in some vague middle ground that things go wonky.

How does that make any sense, with total opposite approaches being compelling ones?  Well, to me, it comes down to the allure of mystery and the draw of intimacy.  Let’s take MacGuffin A, the mystery briefcase that only is described by the glow that comes from the interior when it is opened.  We are told nothing else about this case save for the mysterious events that happen around it and the fact that so many people want it.  Our protagonists and the readers are kept in the dark, never knowing what it is or why exactly everyone is willing to die (or kill) over it.  That cloak of mystery is seductive.  We read on to find those hints as to the MacGuffin’s true nature and it spurs our imagination as we come up with our own theories and deductions.  That mystery is what draws our interest and keeps us solidly glued to the tale and, as the MacGuffin doesn’t need to be minutely described, the author can concentrate on the characterization and plot, knowing he has your attention.

What about the other factor, that draw of intimacy?  Let’s look at MacGuffin B, the ancient statue.  Though a mystery at first to the readers and protagonists outside of the fact everyone wants it, the statue’s history is laid out for both of us in intimate detail.  We know not just what it is, but why exactly everyone wants it.  Though deprived of its cloak of mystery, that is replaced by the true understanding of WHY this hunk of statuary is so vitally important.  We are pulled in because we so completely know the stakes, so the dramatic tension is set at a suitably high bar.  As with the cloak of mystery, the draw of intimacy again focuses the readers’ attention and, once established, leaves the author free to focus on the characters and plot.

Both of these approaches do have pitfalls.  A mystery MacGuffin can be foreshadowed shabbily, with no real indications given as to its importance.  That glowing suitcase is obviously SOMETHING special, even if we don’t know WHAT it is.  If the MacGuffin is left too plain and a total unknown, with no hints to its nature at all, you don’t generate that interest or spark your readers’ imaginations.

As for the intimate MacGuffin, the risk comes in not making the object compelling enough once you reveal it.  If the rationale for the desire for the object is poorly laid out, if the object simply is uninteresting once unveiled, or if the characterization of those wanting it don’t match what it actually is … there are all potential pitfalls.  In a way, it’s like revealing any other mystery in a book.  If it doesn’t hold together, you exchange the dramatic tension of the stakes for a breach of suspension of disbelief as the readers shake their collective heads.

Those are my thoughts on the venerable MacGuffin.  Do you use this particular plot device and do you have any advice to others about it?  Feel free to drop a line in the comments below!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

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