Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Deus Ex MacGuffin

Everyone knows what a MacGuffin is, although we may not be familiar with the appellation. At its simplest, a MacGuffin is an item of vital importance and / or power, at least one facet of which is highly pertinent to the plot at hand. Subsequently the majority of a narrative can be focussed upon obtaining, destroying, or otherwise interacting with it, with the plot's climax usually centred on one of the above.

Unsurprisingly, the word "MacGuffin" is often seen in the company of phrases such as "deus ex machina", "pointless plot device" and "raging fiery cliche from the depths of the twelfth circle of Dante's Inferno". 

Similarly unsurprisingly, the world's best known MacGuffins come from the world of fantasy, which seems to be so littered with all-powerful spellbooks, orbs, swords, gems and staffs that it's a wonder anyone can take a step without tripping over one.

However, MacGuffins are not limited solely to such archetypal roles. And these are the ones you have to watch out for.

In order for a plot to be engaging, it needs stakes. In order for it to have stakes, there has to be some manner of imminent danger and / or conflict to create the neccessary tension and need for the narrative to take place. This isn't always as easy as it sounds, so it's hardly alarming that potent items are used - those super-secret defence plans, that vital piece of proof to prove the accused innocent or guilty, that one clue to last week's crossword that will enter you into the draw to win a thousand pounds and a return trip to Bali for two. 

That said, the problem with using items is that they are just that - items. Unless the characters can give the reader a reason more original than "we need to get this thing before Bad Things Happen", our investment in the story will be minimal. 

This is the real crux of the issue - and this is what needs to be addressed and resolved in order to avoid MacGuffin syndrome.

Some authors, also notably of the fantasy-writing ilk, circumnavigate the need for an item by placing the responsibility directly into the hands of one of the characters. These are the Ringbearers, the Chosen Ones, the Dragon Reborn-s . . . the walking, talking MacGuffin. Now, that isn't to say that this strategy is not a good one - the personal nature of the task will result in greater involvement by the character, and if the character is successfully engaging and interesting, greater involvement in the reader. However, just because the character is contractually obligated to Do The Thing That Must Be Done does not result in sufficient personal involvement in their own right. The character needs other motivations and interests and dynamics to work alongside this in order to avoid becoming an overglorified plot device. 

Another attempted avoidance strategy is to remove all mention of the MacGuffin from the story altogether, only introducing it in the closing stages as a revelatory plot twist. Again, this is not an entirely bogus way to go about it - we all love a good plot twist, and with sufficient foreshadowing and a logical, non-contrived explanation, it can actually work very well. Yet this is exactly where the difficulty lies. Making such a huge game-changer seem logical and clever rather than dumping it on the page to ring out the cry of "I have no idea what I'm doing here!" is difficult. The Deus Ex Machina is easily one of the most despised and contrived of plot occurences since some hapless villain decided to adopt a catchphrase and, without proper handling, that is exactly what your plot-twist MacGuffin can become.

Now now, I hear you cry, you can't go rubbishing these other strategies without giving one that does work, can you? Surely there must be some way around this problem?

There is. In fact, there are many. The problem is that I don't know what they are.

So, instead, here is my personal - emphasis on this word - way of navigating the tripwires of MacGuffin  Central.

Do not write a story centering on an item of great power or value. Write a story that has an item of great power or value in it.

Powerful items are flexible plot devices, interesting demonstrations of the setting, and have massive potential to interest and entertain. However, your characters should have a real reason to be doing what they are doing before you even think about using one of these. They can make wonderful additional motives, but your characters should be out to catch the madman who betrayed their company, slaughtered their families, ate their hamsters, and is now running off to give the Blue-Glowy Cube Of Indefinite Power to the megalomaniac with a god complex because he betrayed their company, slaughtered their family and ate their hamsters, not because they are after the MacGuffin for its own sake. The item is helpful in that it kicks the stakes up a few degrees, but there should be much better established motives and aims for the characters than hinging them all on an inanimate object.

What about you, my friends? Can you think of any particularly horrendous example of MacGuffin abuse that you would like to share? And are any of you more enlightened than me on MacGuffin Avoidance 101? Leave us a comment, and let us know!

~ Charley R


  1. The difficulty with this is endings. If the story is about chasing after the man who killed your hamster, the story ends when that man has been punished. Of course, our dear megalomaniac will still rule the planet with his blue cube, but you have accomplished all you need. Now you can go home and sit in your rocker as the world explodes. There needs to be a shift along the way whereupon the main character realizes that it isn't just about him. Perhaps by that time you've avoided the obvious MacGuffin, but you're going to have a little bit at the end that's about saving the world.

    Waah! Your "Name/URL" thingy is gone again! Bring it back!

    1. A fair point here - that said, the characters would probably be well aware that they need to go on and stop the megalomaniac just out of logic. The climax of a story is usually where the stakes are highest, anyway, and as the object is not the focus of the goal, saving the world is, then there is no MacGuffin usage present (unless you'd like to suddenly whip out a Thing That It Can Do that hasn't been used before).

      Also, sorry, I've had to disable that because of all the spam comments that I've had coming through - five in one day! I can't really afford to be chasing spammers forever. And surely you can still get an OpenID thingie (basically just a name that'll come up when you use the comment boxes on Blogger)?

    2. I would totally make my character sit at home while the world explodes. But that's me.

      Try moderation instead-- there's a setting for first-time commenters to be moderated/spam-tested. That keeps most of the bots away. But I think I'll stick with this for now. Quirk doesn't mind. *whacks Quirk once more for good measure*

  2. I'm guilty of the "magic book MacGuffin" (never heard the turm "MacGuffin" before either. I like it). When writing fantasy it's so easy to fall into the cliches. Aaaah. I'm already brainstorming ways to get rid of it, but you just helped me decide I definitely need to. No going back!

    1. Yes, fantasy is the preferred haunt of the MacGuffin. That said, as long as the MacGuffin isn't the be-all and end-all of your story, it doesn't happen quite as much. Many of my favourite works have MacGuffins in them, but because they're not constantly being talked about or chased after etc, then we don't mind as much. Conversely if they are not mentioned frequently enough then it all goes to pot anyway.

      Yeah. Probably best to try and work around it ;)

  3. It's like in The Quiet Ones where Ani nearly became a Knight simply because of a chance accident thing but actually became a Knight because she had a crush on Kay. Okay, it's not anything like that. I was trying to use an example, but it failed.

    1. That, dearie, is not a MacGuffin at all - well done for avoiding the nasty things!