A MacGuffin, every one of themnote
"In crook stories it is almost always the necklace,
and in spy stories it is most always the papers.
MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It actually serves no further purpose. It won't pop up again later, it won't explain the ending, it won't actually do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. In some cases, it won't even be shown. It is usually a mysterious package/artifact/superweapon that everyone in the story is chasing.
To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin, check to see if it is interchangeable. For example, in a caper
story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn't matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it.
A common MacGuffin story setup can be summarized as "Quickly! We must find X before they
The term was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock
, who actually credited one of his screenwriters, Angus McPhail, with the creation of this concept and the name for it, citing a particular school-boy joke:
A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.
"What is that?" the first man asks.
"A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands."
"But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands," says the first man.
"Well then," says the other, "That's no MacGuffin".
Hitchcock and Angus McPhail were not the first to formulate this concept. Silent-film actress Pearl White starred in cliffhanger serials (most famously "The Perils of Pauline") in which the characters spent most of their screen time chasing each other for possession of a roll of film, or some other doodad. This device occurred so often in Pearl White's serial films that she routinely referred to the coveted object as a "weenie", using the term precisely as Hitchcock would later use "MacGuffin".
In academic circles this is sometimes called the Golden Fleece, after the artifact from the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. The Fleece was first mentioned by the Greek poet Simonides, which makes this trope Older Than Feudalism
Compare Magnetic Plot Device
. Contrast Mock Guffin
, for when an object that isn't really a MacGuffin is mistaken for one.
If it's more than just a something to keep the plot moving, it's probably a Chekhov's Gun
. (Though that only counts if it's initially introduced as being unimportant.)
If you want to start arguing
that your favourite series' most awesome magical thing isn't a MacGuffin, remember that Tropes Are Tools
. Having a MacGuffin is not necessarily bad writing, depending on how it's handled — concretely defining or giving a central role to the object of a chase can actually detract
from a work, if the point is to focus on the characters.
- Accidentally Broke The MacGuffin: When someone breaks the MacGuffin when he needed it.
- Artifact of Attraction: If the object itself is inherently irresistible.
- Clingy MacGuffin: Inversion of this trope — its most important attribute is that the person who has it wants to be rid of it.
- Dismantled MacGuffin: The MacGuffin is split into several parts and hidden in different places. Plot coupons are most often this type of MacGuffin.
- Egg MacGuffin: A MacGuffin that is an egg.
- Free Sample Plot Coupon: The first MacGuffin is given or found with zero effort, compared to subsequent ones.
- Going to See the Elephant: Taking a trip with no serious purpose. The reason for the trip may be a MacGuffin or may not.
- Hostage for MacGuffin: The heroes have the MacGuffin. The Villain has a hostage and wants the MacGuffin. Trade ya?
- I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: A character has the MacGuffin. (S)he dies after giving the MacGuffin to another character (usually the heroes) and asking them to take care of it.
- Just Eat the MacGuffin: The MacGuffin is a lot more trouble than it is worth, and may as well just be destroyed.
- Living MacGuffin: A living being, free (or at least in no danger), who serves as the MacGuffin.
- A MacGuffin Full of Money: The MacGuffin is simply a large amount of cash.
- MacGuffin Delivery Service: The good guys get the MacGuffin just in time for the bad guys to steal it from them. Bad guys win! (Temporarily.)
- MacGuffin Escort Mission: The good guys get the MacGuffin early on. The rest of the story is about them transporting it somewhere else without losing it.
- MacGuffin Girl: The MacGuffin is transformed into a living being (usually a girl).
- MacGuffin Guardian: The monster that guards the MacGuffin.
- MacGuffin Location: The MacGuffin isn't a thing or a person, it's a place.
- MacGuffin Melee: When multiple groups searching for the MacGuffin find it at the same time and a fight breaks out.
- MacGuffin Title: The MacGuffin is right there in the title of the work.
- Memento MacGuffin: A MacGuffin that holds sentimental value to one or more characters.
- Mineral MacGuffin: A gem, a jewel, or a rock of some type that holds great power; in spite of the name, may or may not be an actual MacGuffin.
- Mock Guffin: A MacGuffin that turns out to be worthless.
- No MacGuffin, No Winner: Neither side has the MacGuffin in the end. It's been destroyed, lost, or discovered to be fake.
- Pirate Booty: Older than the Briefcase Full of Money, and even more likely to be stolen.
- Plot Coupon: A common manifestation in video games, an item that the player must acquire to advance the plot, but serves no other gameplay purpose.
- The President's Daughter: The MacGuffin is a living person, and is in danger, held captive or being actively hunted. Contrast with Living MacGuffin.
- Ransacked Room: What the bad guys do when they suspect the good guys already have the MacGuffin. May also include ransacked luggage, tearing up the grounds, or even destroying a room or building.
- Sound Stone: The MacGuffin is a sound rather than a thing, or a thing that must be used to produce the sound.
- Stolen MacGuffin Reveal: The MacGuffin was actually a fake, or stolen before the thief got it.
- Timeline-Altering MacGuffin: An otherwise unimportant item from the future that, if left in the past during time travel, will have serious consequences.
See also It's the Journey That Counts
, Your Princess Is in Another Castle
, All That Glitters
, Chekhov's Gun
and Magic Feather
As you might have guessed from the sheer number of sub-tropes
, this is a very common trope
in fiction. So common, in fact, that it has its own page
on The Other Wiki
Do not confuse with Plot Device. Please, don't.
Also not to be confused with the tribe from Brave
, or anyone of Scottish descent.
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- In The Prayer Warriors, during "The Battle With the Witches", the heroes look for five keys to get into Dumbledore's office in Hogwarts. One is carried by Ginny, another by Ron, a third by Harry, and a fourth by Hermione. It's unclear who has the fifth key, since after the fourth key, the Prayer Warriors break into Dumbledore's office and kill him.
- In Catherine and Her Fate, the skein of silk that Catherine's Fate gives her is so apparently worthless that she nearly throws it out. It has, it turns out, two properties: it is exactly the color needed to sew the king's wedding garments, inspiring him to say that she shall have its weight in gold, and it outweighs his entire treasury, thereby inspiring him to demand her story.
- The Paranoia adventure "The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues". The title Black Box. What it does is eventually revealed, in some versions of the adventure, but it's unlikely your player characters will live long enough to discover it.
- The "Honor & Intrigue" system has a character attribute actually called "MacGuffin". Taking it turns one of the items in your character's possession into a future MacGuffin.
- In Philoctetes, while much is made of Philoctetes' special bow (received from Herakles himself) the plot itself is not really concerned with its purpose as much as the choices the characters make because of and in spite of its importance.
- In Sherlock Holmes, the MacGuffin is a packet containing letters, photographs, jewelry etc. that were sent to Alice Faulkner's late sister by a foreign gentleman who seduced and ruined her, and the villains want it out of the picture now that he wants to marry. The name of the gentleman is merely whispered inaudibly, and the sister's name is not revealed either.
- Mary's eye in Shikkoku No Sharnoth. We know what the eye does for her but exactly how it would really help anyone else who acquired it is pretty vague. They simply want it.