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I backed myself into a corner and have to create a [TV TROPES WARNING] MacGuffin for a story.

How can I create a good MacGuffin? How to make it interesting for the reader ?

I don't know where to start, how to define what type of item it should be (money, documents, weapons, etc.) and how to make it interesting for the reader.
The story already has most locations and characters well defined, and I wrote the first chapters (plus some bits here and there).

I'm looking for some type checklist of the main characteristics of a good MacGuffin, or a step-by-step guide to find and refine an idea.

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The MacGuffin is bound with the plot - it can't be any random thing not related in any way to the plot around it. Consider some examples:

  • The Hobbit: Thorin wants to find the Arkenstone, a particularly beautiful and precious jewel. He is not looking for a briefcase full of money - that wouldn't fit the setting. The MacGuffin in this story must be something unique, recognisable, valuable in general and also particularly precious to the character. It must be a symbol. The exact nature of the item - whether a stone, or a sword, or a crown - is irrelevant.
  • The Three Musketeers must retrieve the Queen's diamond studs. Again, the exact nature of the incriminating love-gift is irrelevant, but it must be something that can function as a gift from a husband to a wife and from a woman to her lover. A briefcase full of money will not do.
  • Indiana Jones is after some sort of ancient treasure in each film. The MacGuffin must therefore fit into this frame.
  • In a thriller, on the other hand, a briefcase full of money is a perfectly fine thing to chase, fight over, etc.

It follows that to create a good MacGuffin, you must be guided by the function it must perform in your story, by the place it holds, by what your story is about and where/when it is set. Sure, a MacGuffin doesn't do anything, but it is sought after by certain people. What kind of object would be valuable to the characters you've created?

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I thought the point of the MacGuffin is to force the characters into a journey, so they can be transformed by the journey, whether they get the MacGuffin or not.

A clear example of this is Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, she is told in the first Act she must seek the WoZ to get home. But in the end, it turns out, she never needed the WoZ at all, she could have gotten home the moment she put on the ruby slippers, by clicking her heels three times and repeating "There's No Place Like Home."

So she did not have to meet and befriend the Scarecrow, Tin Man or Cowardly Lion, she did not have to suffer the flying monkeys, or the Wicked Witch of the West, she did not have to uncover the fraud of the Wizard of Oz. Nor did any of her friends truly need the WoZ, if you recall.

But for the story the MacGuffin was necessary to force her onto the yellow brick road and the journey that transformed her and her found allies, let her find her courage and become a hero. Without the MacGuffin, she would not feel forced into taking the journey.

So your MacGuffin must be something your characters feel is valuable, literally or figuratively; but that feeling may be the result of a misunderstanding or intentional trickery. They must think it is necessary for them to find to solve their problem, but in truth it doesn't have to be: During the journey they are forced to take, in search of the MacGuffin, they are transformed, and when they finally find it, it may or may not be valuable. That doesn't matter, their prize was their transformation. (Or for the villains, their punishment is their disappointment or utter defeat for wasting time and resources finding the MacGuffin).

Typically, if you want both protagonists AND antagonists searching for the MacGuffin, it must serve either side to find it.

One way to do that is to make the MacGuffin some kind of powerful tool that either side could use to advance their good or evil agenda. That might be vast wealth, or something with power bordering on magic, or some kind of secret information (even blackmail or evidence of a crime), or even a computer code of some sort.

It could also be a super-good or super-evil, so one side seeks it to use it, and the other seeks it to destroy it. In any case, to be a true MacGuffin, the main point of this story is what happens in the journey, not the ending.

But along the way, it is typically the heroes that benefit from the chase, perhaps by falling in love, or resolving personal issues (like a family reconciling while seeking an inheritance), or exacting vengeance (by finding the clinching evidence, the heroes thwart and convict the villains that bankrupted their father), etc.

What makes a good MacGuffin is a compelling MacGuffin the reader (or viewer) believes makes sense to force two (or more) characters together into a "crucible" (see that link it is a useful writing technique), so they must put up with each other while searching for it.

Actually finding the MacGuffin does not have to be the real climax of the story; the real climax can be before or after that, and would typically be the final emotional resolution of the character transformations of the MacGuffin chasers. As Dorothy (at least in the movie, I didn't read the book) ultimately loses the WoZ, he flies away without her. But the true end of the movie is when she realizes her power, has become a courageous leader, and then finds herself waking up at home surrounded by the people she loves.

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    Me being a nitpicker, I'll just point out that originally in the Wizard of Oz, the shoes Dorothy picked off the Wicked Witch of the East were silver. They only became "ruby slippers" in the movie, because red looked better in technicolor than silver. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Nov 30 '18 at 21:56
  • @Galastel Yeah, I didn't read the book. I liked your answer here, took me a minute to think of something else to say! – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Nov 30 '18 at 22:05
  • Thanks! You've thought of quite the something else to say. ;) I've only really addressed the very narrow question of "how to define what type of item the MacGaffin should be". – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Nov 30 '18 at 23:20
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the MacGuffin joke

I've never understood Hitchcock's "joke" about the MacGuffin on a train. It's clear that it's some kind of nonsense diversion but the punchline just doesn't make sense:

“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!” So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

The expected punchline would be that proves the MacGuffin works well, ergo no lions.

the Mongoose joke

Quote Investigator found a version of the joke dating back to the 1880s (or earlier) that does make sense (I paraphrase):

A man carries an elaborate animal crate nailed shut with breathing holes. He says it contains a mongoose to kill the snakes seen by his friend who suffers from DT (alcohol withdrawal, severe cases killed an alarming percentage of alcoholics who tried to stop drinking). The other man exclaims that hallucinatory snakes aren't real, and the man with the elaborate animal crate says the mongoose isn't real either.

The distinction between the two jokes, in my opinion, is important. By the time of Hitchcock's re-telling the story has become absurdist, the punchline is almost random. It seems to be a round-about way of saying "Mind your own business." The "MacGuffin" is undefined and it's purpose is completely arbitrary.

But in the earlier version, the crate is made up to look dangerous to impress an alcoholic. The ruse is so convincing that it entices a concerned stranger to ask what's inside. This version seems much closer to the idea of a MacGuffin in a movie production context. While there's actually no mongoose, the box itself is a convincing presentation that signals something dangerous. It doesn't matter that the mongoose doesn't exist, it's the container that people see.

By the time of Hitchcock, MacGuffin had become a wider metaphor for the plot hook: the random thing that everyone is after. But the original mongoose joke suggests something practical a propmaster needs to build that is seen on camera – not a mongoose puppet with fur and teeth but an elaborate animal crate: the more nails holding the box shut the more dangerous the animal inside.

Stage magic is actually just props and acting

Substitute the MacGuffin/Mongoose with a diamond necklace. The plot involves a plucky heiress and a suave thief pursued by a wise old detective. It's not really about the necklace, that's what makes it a MacGuffin, but the necklace needs to be somehow uniquely fabulous since it is the pretext for bringing everyone together.

A "bad" MacGuffin will tell-not-show why the necklace is important. It will have an elaborate backstory and a family curse. It will be the largest and most diamond-y necklace with rotating sparkles – sound effects are heard when it is seen on camera. There is a limit to how far this can go before the necklace becomes comical, like a mongoose puppet with extra rows of teeth – it breaks the suspension of disbelief.

A "good" MacGuffin leads straight to character actions: a worried insurance agent is fretting about the heiress's decision to wear the necklace to a charity ball. He hires extra police to watch her, and the necklace is removed from the hotel safe only under armed guard. The charming thief has already sidled up to the heiress and seen the necklace – he's had access but not opportunity. To stay close he also pretends to be concerned and agrees with the old detective that she should be more careful.

The audience isn't scrutinizing the necklace as an object, instead they are convinced by the metaphorical box. They begin to watch for lapses in security in sympathy with all the characters. Everyone is waiting for an opportunity for the theft. When they discuss the necklace they are not saying how big it is and too bad about the curse. They talk about logistics and suspects, and the audacity of such a brazen heist. No one needs to explain why the necklace is important because everyone is already behaving as if it's the most important thing in the world.

As a stage prop, its more effective to bring out a nailed box and have the actors back away from it, than try to convince the audience a mongoose puppet is ferocious. Like a stage magician's slight-of-hand, it's all confidence-acting and misdirection. You don't have to dispel the trick just as you don't have to reveal there's no mongoose in the box.

a MacGuffin is in medias res

The MacGuffin leads to escalating stakes because it is already important to other characters.

A MacGuffin is different from a protagonist's personal goal because its "value" is established before the protagonist encounters it. The audience (often through the protagonist) accepts the MacGuffin's value by osmosis, but they are never given the chance to form their own critical opinion. It is important because it's already important to others.

Sam Spade only wants the Maltese Falcon because it's important to the others (and one of them murdered his partner). The suave thief desires the impossible-to-steal necklace because its an ego challenge (but the heiress and wise detective appeal to his better nature). The invasion plans are fake. The stolen painting is a forgery.

MacGuffins are safe for plot twists because other characters are invested in them. Revealing or breaking a MacGuffin is not an ego-crushing defeat for the protagonist.

Heist and spy plots often have a protagonist who rejects the MacGuffin, but is recruited or coerced into pursuing it by other characters. It doesn't need to be justified or personal. Treating the MacGuffin as a story-in-progress is a shortcut to get a reluctant or accidental hero into the action.

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    Good post, but two points. Hitchcock says the MacGuffin isn't important because it is the principal plot element. This means the story will be over when the MacGuffin is retrieved, in safe hands, destroyed, dissasembled or whatever else is required to keep it out of the hands of the antagonists. The MacGuffin in and of itself is unimportant, it's role in the story is all important. So it can be anything. Sam Spade wants the Maltese Falcon to find out who killed his partner Miles Archer. He has to get that by going through the hunt-the-Falcon gang. – a4android Dec 2 '18 at 3:22
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    I think this has some great content, and some real insight, but that it's overly long and too poorly structured for me to upvote it. I would reverse your three sections, and tighten them up a little. Always start with the direct answer, and save the tangent for the end. – Chris Sunami Feb 5 at 21:54
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Having a MacGuffin is not a good thing. A MacGuffin is a trap, a shorthand an author uses to make his characters do things. The best MacGuffin is one that does not exist.

Characters need motivation, and an easy one becomes get a magic sword because only it can kill the dragon, or get a nuke away from Dr X because otherwise he will blow up the Nun convention. Now you can send your heroes on crazy adventures for really no reason. Their actions and motivations don't have to matter. The dragon must be slain, and the Nuns must be saved, and we will go to every dark cave and strip bar necessary to do it!

So the question should not be "How do I write a MacGuffin?" but instead "How do I create interesting plot points?"

If you still find yourself in a situation where the only way you can make the plot move forward is to make the characters chase some object here are some suggestions:

  • Make it tangible. Don't let it be like the anime hero that is looking for the Greatest X of All Time as he travels episode by episode.

  • Let the character get it (or not get it) before the last 10 pages of the book.

  • Have it be a real thing that affects the story, and does not just tie off a neat bow. "And then we grabbed the magic stone and wished for the lich to be dead, The End" is not great story telling.

  • Most importantly give your characters other motivations. Just getting the MacGuffin is not enough. They should have more personal desires, and all of it should be a puzzle that fits together. The chase for an object can be a catalyst, or something that unfolds in the background, but not the only reason the protagonist gets up in the morning.

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Hitchcock's insight was that the specific properties of a MacGuffin are not important, what is important is that everyone wants it. It's a plot device, so you can shape it to be exactly what you need to be to animate the plot you want, and motivate the characters you have. In Pulp Fiction, the MacGuffin is never actually seen (by the viewer --all we know is that it glows and is "beautiful"). In The Maltese Falcon,

The MacGuffin is a counterfeit --the real one never appears, and might not even exist

In the Wizard of Oz

The MacGuffin is a lie. It doesn't do what it is supposed to do, and has no actual value.

So we can't tell you what your MacGuffin should be without knowing what your setting and characters are. Does it represent money? Power? Fame? Or is it something altruistic, like a cure for cancer? Is it something that needs to be found to avert disaster? Does it make all your dreams come true? Is it all things to all people? In general, as the above examples show, the most memorable MacGuffins are the least seen, the most elusive. Like the Holy Grail in the Arthur stories, they are everywhere, and nowhere, and they vanish when you get close. In this way, they can be a stand-in to the readers/viewers for their own unmet hearts' desires. The moment you actually catch up to it, a bit of the magic is lost.

Something with actual function and usage, that the characters actually get their hands on and use, isn't a true MacGuffin. That's not a bad thing. Not every story needs to be a MacGuffin story.

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