“The MacGuffin is the thing the hero chases, the thing the picture is all about…”
Sometimes it’s a briefcase full of money. Sometimes it’s an expensive piece of jewelry or a priceless statue. Other times, no one really knows what it is — not even the filmmaker.
They’re all MacGuffins.
Let's take a deep dive into this strange, Hitchcock-coined plot device and explore how you can best use it in your screenplays. But first...what's a plot device?
More Plot Devices: Everything You Need to Know About Chekhov’s Gun
What is a Plot Device?
Plot devices are narrative techniques writers can use to impact the plot of a story.
What Are MacGuffins?
A MacGuffin is something that is crucial to the plot but has no real impact on the story.
MacGuffins keep the plot moving forward, force the characters into action, and create tension and conflict, but they don’t have any intrinsic value themselves or add any meaning.
It could be an object, a character, an event, or a piece of information. It’s whatever the characters are after, whatever is fueling the storylines.
True MacGuffins could be switched for something else entirely with absolutely no impact on the story — swap the statue that’s “the stuff that dreams are made of” in The Maltese Falcon for a diamond, a stack of cash, or one of Bogart’s signature fedoras and the story stays the exact same.
If the item is interchangeable and irrelevant to the larger story, it’s a MacGuffin.
Why MacGuffins Work
Understanding why MacGuffins work hinges on the crucial and sometimes confusing relationship between plot, character, and story.
Story emerges when characters move through a plot.
While plot is what happens in a movie, and the characters are who it happens to, the story is the result. Story is what it’s all about, what it means.
And MacGuffins impact the plot but don’t add any meaning to the story itself. So, whatever the MacGuffin is (the object, character, event, or piece of information) isn’t actually important at all.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the characters in Titanic are trying to find the Heart of the Ocean, a handmade bracelet, or an invaluable dinglehopper. All we really care about is Jack and Rose’s love story.
The root of why MacGuffins work lies in the writer understanding why viewers connect with a story in the first place — it’s not about a cool object, destructive weapon, or interesting fact; it’s about the characters.
The History of the MacGuffin
Master of mystery Alfred Hitchcock coined the term and popularized it in the 1950s, but the use of MacGuffins in storytelling predates the name itself.
Greek mythology features one of the oldest MacGuffins in Jason and the Argonauts’ quest for the elusive Golden Fleece, and the myth of the Holy Grail is simply an Arthurian example of a MacGuffin.
In the early days of filmmaking, silent-film star Pearl White was known to use the term “weenie” to describe whatever insignificant object the characters in her series “The Perils of Pauline” were chasing after.
Hitchcock popularized his definition of MacGuffins with his 1935 film The 39 Steps, but then continued to use the device in Notorious, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho, just to name a few. For Hitchcock, MacGuffins had to be incredibly important to the characters, but otherwise meaningless to the story and the audience.
George Lucas' MacGuffin
Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas, however, would come to interpret the term differently. Lucas believed that the audience should care about the MacGuffin almost as much as the characters do, a stark difference to Hitchcock’s preferred definition.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure it matters if you’re Team Hitchcock or Team Lucas. Either way, MacGuffins drive the plot and motivate the characters, but don’t add much deeper meaning to the story. Whether or not the audience cares about the MacGuffin is a little out of your control anyway.
Let’s take a look at how several popular movies use MacGuffins to influence the plot and motivate the characters.
The MacGuffin in Casablanca
This classic film features a great example of a MacGuffin in the form of the highly sought-after letters of transit.
As the narrator explains at the beginning of the movie, refugees from around Europe fled the Second World War and ended up in Casablanca, where they wait and wait and wait to escape to America. It’s nearly impossible to secure an exit visa, but the rumored letters of transit will allow safe passage, no questions asked.
The letters change hands and end up hidden away in Rick’s Café Americain, where Ilsa Lund and Victor Laszlo come looking for them as their ticket away from the Nazis.
The letters of transit may influence the plot — they motivate the characters to act and cause them to argue, lie, and manipulate — but they aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things.
The characters want to find them, sell them, or get rid of them, but the pieces of paper themselves don’t add anything deeper to the story. At its heart, Casablanca is about love, loyalty, patriotism, and sacrifice, not a few flimsy pieces of paper.
The MacGuffin in Psycho
Given that famous shower scene and the crazy reveal at the end, people could be forgiven for not remembering that Psycho doesn’t actually start at the Bates Motel. In the beginning, it’s all about some money.
Secretary Marion Crane steals a large amount of cash from her boss and goes on the run, stopping for the night at a motel with plenty of available rooms. Unfortunately, that’s where Marion’s storyline meets an untimely end (in the aforementioned shower), but that’s not where the movie ends. Not by a long shot.
After Marion goes missing, her sister, boyfriend, and a private investigator all get involved in the mystery surrounding the Bates Motel. The stolen money is simply a conduit into the much larger story about Norman Bates and the true goings-on at his eponymous motel.
In fact, by the end of the movie, most viewers have forgotten about the stolen money altogether… because the money never really mattered. It was a MacGuffin (and a Red Herring — Plot Device Double Duty!).
Other Examples of MacGuffins
- The statue in The Maltese Falcon
- Whatever’s in that damn briefcase in Pulp Fiction
- The rug that ties the room together in The Big Lebowski
- The Heart of the Ocean in Titanic
- The Tesseract in Captain America and The Avengers (only within the context of these individual movies, not when considering the MCU as a whole)
- The “Rabbit’s Foot” — whatever that is — in Mission Impossible 3
- The briefcase full of money in Fargo
- Those microprocessors in The Departed
- Doug the Missing Groom-To-Be in The Hangover
- Unobtanium in Avatar
- The shrink ray in Despicable Me
- The sorcerer’s stone in the first Harry Potter movie
- Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan
- The Holy Grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
- The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings
How to Use a MacGuffin in Your Story
MacGuffins often get a bad rap for being the sign of lazy storytelling, but when used correctly can actually be quite effective. That said, not all stories will benefit from having a MacGuffin.
We Must Find the MacGuffin Before They Do!
Everyone’s seen a movie where the characters are after something — you know, that thing they absolutely must get their hands on before the bad guys do. Well, that thing was probably a MacGuffin.
Adventures and thrillers are beset with MacGuffins, and for good reason. They serve a purpose in these kinds of quest stories when written well, but when written poorly, the MacGuffin can end up being a crutch for weak, surface-level storytelling.
The Characters Have to Care
Keep in mind that what the MacGuffin is doesn’t really matter — a pot of gold, a delicious hamburger, or a shoe will do just fine.
Whether or not the audience cares about the MacGuffin is unimportant. The audience cares about the characters and if the characters care about the MacGuffin, that’s good enough.
Meaning Doesn’t Come from MacGuffins
The MacGuffin — whatever it is — is just a plot device. It’s something to get the action going, motivate the characters, and make things happen. By itself, it doesn’t mean anything.
If you’re going to use a MacGuffin, make sure that you don’t layer it with your story’s deeper meaning. Meaning should be embedded in the characters and the theme, not the MacGuffin.
MacGuffins can be tricky plot devices, but immensely effective if used correctly. Just don’t lean on a MacGuffin as a crutch, make sure that your story stands on its own!
Check out our other plot device breakdowns from this series here!
Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller from the middle of nowhere, Ohio. She’s had jobs in travel writing, movie trailers, and podcasting, and is currently getting her MFA in Screenwriting at the University of Texas at Austin. When not writing, Britton is most likely belting along to Broadway musical soundtracks, carefully making miniature bookshelves, or napping with her dog, Indiana Jones. Find more of her writing on her website or follow her on Instagram.