4 Reasons the MacGuffin is a Screenwriter's Best Friend


By Armaan Uplekar

We’ve seen them all before but perhaps never recognized their importance. From the mysterious glowing suitcase in “Pulp Fiction” to the titular ancient idol in “The Maltese Falcon”, the nuclear warheads in “True Lies”, or DaVinci’s secret code; it’s that thing, or even person (“Get Shorty”), that everyone is chasing after, that everyone wants. Such familiar elements are the V8 engine that drive some of your favorite classics, motivating some of cinema’s most memorable and notable protagonists into action. These objects, while they might be diverse in origin and form, all exist for the same basic principle: They are convenient devices meant to spur your story’s hero into action.

To put it simply, they are MacGuffins. The term “MacGuffin” was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock; as a matter of fact, they were a mainstay in the thriller genre that he is routinely celebrated as being a master of. “MacGuffins” are objects that typically have no other greater narrative importance other than being a motivator for the protagonist. From R2-D2 in “Star Wars: A New Hope” to the Rabbit’s Foot in “Mission Impossible III,” MacGuffins have long been a mainstay in the repertoire of generations of screenwriters and storytellers.  Here are four reasons why a MacGuffin could be the answer to your next screenplay.

MacGuffins Are a Convenient Motivator

One of the chief reasons why MacGuffins have become such a storied part of popular cinema is because they often serve as a great way to force your protagonist to act. In “Star Wars,” R2-D2 is the MacGuffin that spurs Luke Skywalker into meeting Ben Kenobi. Nearly forty years later, BB-8 is the MacGuffin that pushes Rey to join The Resistance in “The Force Awakens.”

What MacGuffins do best is put forth a task that your protagonist must complete. Once you establish what a MacGuffin means in the context of your protagonist’s journey, you can justify whatever your hero has to do in order to achieve their goal. Do they need to keep a top-secret weapons prototype from falling into the hands of an international arms dealer? Do they need to protect a briefcase and safely deliver it into the hands of a government official?

In any of these scenarios, MacGuffins function primarily as a way to put your hero in a situation they’ve never been before. If you’re having trouble figuring out a way to communicate why your protagonist goes on a particular journey or makes a certain choice, try establishing a MacGuffin: it might serve as a useful motivator.


MacGuffins Can Help You Establish Stakes

If MacGuffins motivate your protagonist, they can also motivate your antagonist. As a result, you can use MacGuffins as a way to leverage stakes into your story. For example, in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones is tasked with recovering the Ark of the Covenant. At the same time, the Nazis are looking to recover the Ark in order to harness its awesome power for their own nefarious goals.

In the case of “Raiders”, audiences can clearly understand what will happen if Indiana Jones fails at his goal: the Nazis will be able to wage undisputed war upon the world. This lends your story a clear sense of stakes. Stakes are essential to creating tension in any story; they communicate to an audience why your characters’ choices are important and of consequence. By properly using a MacGuffin, you can establish and imbue this oft-used storytelling device with real weight. Your MacGuffin, besides serving as a chief motivator for your hero, will also be a source of drama, adding an extra dimension to your screenplay.


MacGuffins Can Help You Reveal Character Traits

In “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the One Ring becomes a prism through which we view character. We watch as the story’s heroes embark on their epic odyssey, how different characters interact when presented with the temptation of handling the One Ring. Frodo shoulders the burden with a weary stoicism before succumbing to temptation. Gandalf refused outright to handle the Ring, fearful of the consequences it might wreak. And Samwise Gamgee sees his best friend turn and suffer at the hands of the Ring, and supports him up to the lip of Mount Doom.

One of the most dynamic ways you can utilize a MacGuffin is by using it as a method to reveal character. MacGuffins are chiefly deployed as a motivator for plot mechanics, but they can also serve as a mirror of sorts, reflecting and refracting your characters’ most principal qualities accordingly.

For example, Character A might seek to use the MacGuffin for reasons that apply to the “Greater Good,” whereas Character B might want to put their hands on the MacGuffins for wholly self-serving reasons. In this scenario, the MacGuffin serves as a method to create a juxtaposition between characters, drawing a clear delineation how one character might act when confronted with control of the MacGuffin compared to others.


MacGuffins Can Help You Fortify Your Story Structure

A well-structured story is the backbone to any screenplay. While adapting your premise to story structure might prove trying or frustrating, MacGuffins can be a simple but wholly effective way to give your script a more established focus. When we talk about three-act structure in particular, we often mention important story beats such as “inciting incident”, “climax” and “resolution.”

When we apply MacGuffins to your story, your structure might accommodate their presence in a variety of ways. For example, your “inciting incident” can be the moment your protagonist learns that a particular MacGuffin is in danger of being stolen, spurring them into action. Your climax might be the mortal struggle your protagonist and antagonist engage in for control of the MacGuffin, in a last-minute bid to thwart your antagonist from enacting his or her master plan. And your story’s “dark night of the soul” (the lowest emotional moment for your protagonist, after their greatest failure) might be the moment the MacGuffin lands in enemy hands.

While these are only some of the ways you can use a MacGuffin to mold your script’s overall structure, it’s easy to see how the presence of a MacGuffin might allow you to construct your story’s scaffolding in a clear, easy to understand way.

By finding ways to apply a MacGuffin to your script, you may come up with new ways to communicate important story elements such as character, structure, stakes and motivation. Remember that the MacGuffin is a powerful narrative tool that, when used correctly, can make your script feel more dynamic and exciting.

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