TV Tropes Org


Repair Shop Morgue:
Misused: Mac Guffin
search forum titles
google site search
Total posts: [42]

Misused: Mac Guffin get usage counts

The misuse happens when Sub-Trope of MacGuffin has example that is not MacGuffin.

I found this problem when trying to decide whether the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings counts as an Artifact of Attraction. The ring is "supernaturally super desirable", and is the object of the page quote; Gollum always referred to the One Ring as "my precious." I expected to find the One Ring in the examples for Artifact of Attraction, under Literature. To my surprise, The Lord of The Rings is not there, but The Silmarillion is there. The Silmarils are less famous than the One Ring from the same author (J.R.R. Tolkien), so why would someone mention the Silmarils and not the One Ring? Perhaps the Silmarils are Artifacts of Attraction, but the One Ring is not.

The example emphasizes that the Silmarils "don't have any special powers and possessing them provides the owner with no benefits whatsoever." (I can ignore a minor plot point in Beren and Lúthien's story, where a Silmaril empowers Carcharoth to pass the barrier around Thingol's realm.) The Silmarils have no powers. "The Artifact of Attraction is a MacGuffin that... is supernaturally super desirable, " so the Silmarils must be a MacGuffin. The page for MacGuffin requires that the object "serves no further purpose" and imposes the Hope diamond test: "in a caper story, the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which." The Silmarils pass the Hope diamond test. The One Ring fails this test, because it has special powers. The One Ring grants invisibility and carries the curse of Sauron. If I would swap out the One Ring for some Silmaril or Arkenstone, then Frodo can no longer use it to turn invisible, and the Fellowship no longer needs to destroy it to get rid of Sauron. By my logic, the One Ring is not a MacGuffin, and therefore is not an Artifact of Attraction.

The page for Sub-Trope says that every Happy Holidays Dress is a Pimped-Out Dress. Likewise, I believe that every Artifact of Attraction is a MacGuffin. This is consistent with the page for MacGuffin (it lists Artifact of Attraction as a subtrope), and the page for Artifact of Attraction (it says, "The Artifact of Attraction is a MacGuffin..."). However, I have just now learned that Artifact of Attraction does include the One Ring, not under Literature, but under Film. This inclusion is a misuse of trope MacGuffin.

Yet the misuse also happens in other subtropes of MacGuffin.

There was a proposal in 2010 to rename MacGuffin Escort Mission for this same reason: some examples escort an object that is not a MacGuffin. The trope also lists the One Ring. However, the proposal died without renaming the trope.



edited 7th Oct '12 10:01:58 PM by Kernigh

Long story short, the misuse is not just via tvtropes (and not just the general internet either). Absolutely no manner of tweaking the pages and definitions is going to fix an entire internet that has it's own opinions on if a particular item is a Macguffin or not.

Best case scenario is doing a thorough wick check every six months to scrubs iffy or just bad examples. Renaming certain sub-tropes might be prudent, but this is one page that has to stick around but accept the fact we arent going to fix misuse.

You keep saying Hope Diamond test. What is that?
 4 Another Duck, Mon, 8th Oct '12 4:21:10 AM from Stockholm Relationship Status: Chocolate!
No, the other one.
[up]If you have a McGuffin that's valuable, you can exchange it for the Hope Diamond and have no or little difference in the actual story.

For that reason, I think the One Ring qualifies as a whole (in Lot R). It does have specific powers, like invisibility, but that power isn't important to the story as a whole. There are some details that make use of it, but those are only marginal. So, I see no issue with it as a McGuffin and an Artefact Of Attraction. Overall it's just an object of unspecified but great power.
Check out my fanfiction!
 5 Madrugada, Mon, 8th Oct '12 9:16:03 AM Relationship Status: In season
The One Ring Is a MacGuffin. It could be a pin, a necklace, a rock, a piece of paper, a vase, a ... you get the idea. There's no reason it needs to be a Ring.
'He strutted across the bedroom, his hard manhood pointing the way' sounds like he owns a badly named seeing-eye dog. 'Sit, Hard Manhood!
 6 nrjxll, Mon, 8th Oct '12 1:40:24 PM Relationship Status: Not war
To be honest, I think we're fighting the inevitable by trying to preserve Hitchcock's MacGuffin at all.

World's Toughest Milkman
Main/MacGuffin found in: 3894 articles, excluding discussions.

Since January 1, 2012 this article has brought 11, 040 people to the wiki from non-search engine links.

Based on that, we're going to need a lot more than suppositions and doubts to justify any drastic action. Anyway, the word's in the freakin' dictionary. We can't go around redefining it at this stage! :)
"Existential Despair" is an oxymoron.
 8 Septimus Heap, Tue, 9th Oct '12 2:15:11 PM from Zurich, Switzerland Relationship Status: Mu
A Wizard boy
Yeah, I doubt we need to make drastic change here.

World's Toughest Milkman
I do agree with OP that Artifact of Attraction is not a subtrope of MacGuffin, even though the One Ring qualifies as both. Something can be an Artifact of Attraction without having any particular impact on the plot. But that's not a problem with MacGuffin, and should properly be dealt with in a thread about Artifact of Attraction.
"Existential Despair" is an oxymoron.
I am conceding that the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings qualifies as a MacGuffin. The One Unicorn Horn or the One Traffic Cone would work just as well (as long as Sauron curses the thing). This invalidates some of the logic in my original post.

I still think that MacGuffin is being misused. There is a conflict between two different definitions:

  • Macguffin A: It is a "motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot" that "serves no further purpose". It is interchangeable. Its identity does not matter; the One Unicorn Horn fits as well as the One Ring, or the Hope diamond fits as well as the Mona Lisa.
  • Macguffin B: It drives the plot, but might have some further purpose, and might be too important to interchange with something else.

MacGuffin and MacGuffin Location are about Macguffin A. However, some alleged subtropes are about Macguffin B. It is as if those tropes know not what the word "MacGuffin" means.

One possible fix is to add a note explaining that the object need not be a Macguffin. Memento MacGuffin, Mineral MacGuffin, and Stolen MacGuffin Reveal already have such notes.

None of the following tropes seem to require a Macguffin: Accidentally Broke the MacGuffin, Dismantled MacGuffin, Egg MacGuffin, Fakin' MacGuffin, Just Eat the MacGuffin, I'm Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin, MacGuffin Delivery Service, MacGuffin Escort Mission. With these tropes, someone forgot the meaning of the word "MacGuffin", and assumed that a Macguffin is any important thing that the characters want. Why call it a MacGuffin if it does not need to be one?

edited 9th Oct '12 7:30:23 PM by Kernigh

 11 nrjxll, Tue, 9th Oct '12 7:30:26 PM Relationship Status: Not war
I am conceding that the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings qualifies as a MacGuffin. The One Unicorn Horn or the One Traffic Cone would work just as well (as long as Sauron curses the thing).

This strikes me as an overly broad sense of "interchangeable", honestly.

Egg MacGuffin has nothing to do with Mc Donald's.
Dragon Writer
.I believe that the stone from Harry Potter are not Macguffins. The stone might enable the return of Voldemort [but] none of them are interchangeable; all of them have a further purpose.
Sure it is; you could replace the Philosopher's Stone with the Philosopher's Shoe, Philosopher's Quill Pen, etc. The stone's desirable quality (creates elixir of life) is independent of what it physically "is"; that's what makes it a MacGuffin.

The "classic" (Hitchcockian) MacGuffin takes this concept a step further by requiring that the MacGuffin serves no purpose beyond the need/desire of characters to obtain it. A.k.a. the race to get it is the story; once it's acquired, all that's left to do is draw the curtain and roll credits.
 14 nrjxll, Wed, 10th Oct '12 1:59:04 AM Relationship Status: Not war
Again, this "physical change" idea is an enormously broad definition of "interchangeable".

edited 10th Oct '12 1:59:27 AM by nrjxll

Dragon Writer
And the "Hope Diamond test" is not a necessarily authoritative measure of a MacGuffin either, because relative to the setting it might just be some shiny stone.

edited 10th Oct '12 11:47:24 AM by Stratadrake

Roger Ebert referred to the Allspark from the Transformers Film Series as being a macguffin and even did a parenthetical about anyone trying to argue with that statement needing to look up the definition.

The ultimate purpose of a macguffin is to set the plot in motion but not influence it, as such if you can see the story as largely the same regardless of the physical form or even abilities then it is a macguffin. I think the only caveat that has changed is that people are thinking that changing the specifics of the item means "the script would remain the same" instead of the classical definition of "would have no bearing on the script." It's a small difference, but look at how much controversy it has caused.

Taking the Allspark into account, they outline its specific powers but the only thing it does to change the plot is basically as a blunt object to kill Megatron. The Allspark was an original creation combining different artifacts from Transformers lore, ultimately any of those could have served that same purpose.

The issue always comes down to how much influence it can have before it is considered plot influencing. Indiana Jones' Ark of the Covenant kills all the Nazi's at the end but again, it could have been any other Artifact of Doom to serve that same purpose. The invisible powers of The One Ring aren't used to get past any difficult obstacles and in fact was stated that using the ring in that way would draw attention from Sauron.

edited 10th Oct '12 11:48:43 AM by KJMackley

Dragon Writer
^ Speaking of LOTR, of that long bloodied path from Isildur to Frodo, how many bearers actually used the ring for its power of invisibility? Bilbo did, Frodo tried (but it backfired), but for the most part it was simply kept and valued as a "precious" item.
World's Toughest Milkman
An important distiction: in The Hobbit, the One Ring was not a MacGuffin—it was simply a Plot Device. The MacGuffin in The Hobbit was Smaug's treasure. The One Ring only became a MacGuffin in LotR.

I agree with KJ Mackley that some people seem to be confusing "the script" with "the plot". The plot of LotR is the quest to destroy the ancient evil. How that ancient evil manifests (as a ring-shaped Artifact of Attraction in this particular case) is not relevant. Nor are its powers—changing those would change the script, but not the plot, which is a broad, common one. Ditto for the stones in the Harry Potter example. The broad plot would not be affected by making those into rings or cups.

eta: The form of the MacGuffin may affect details of the story without affecting the plot. For example, in a caper story about stealing the Hope Diamond, maybe you have the thief hide it in a bucket of ice. Obviously, that wouldn't work so well if you substitute the Mona Lisa. Nevertheless, the plot would remain the same even if you had to come up with some other way to hide the Mona Lisa in plain sight.

edited 10th Oct '12 1:06:05 PM by Xtifr

"Existential Despair" is an oxymoron.
Dragon Writer a caper story about stealing the Hope Diamond, maybe you have the thief hide it in a bucket of ice.
Only for the smart detective to point out that real ice cubes float.
World's Toughest Milkman
[up]Float? On air? On the tiny bit of meltwater at the bottom of the bucket? I don't think so, unless something goes wrong, and the bucket gets left sitting for a few hours.

In any case, lets not derail. I'm not going to pretend to be a brilliant creator of mystery plots (let alone a master thief). That was just an off-the-cuff suggestion to illustrate the concept. The point is that something can affect the details of the story, and still be a MacGuffin. We're not talking search-and-replace here. We're talking broad plot.
"Existential Despair" is an oxymoron.
 21 Another Duck, Thu, 11th Oct '12 6:00:25 AM from Stockholm Relationship Status: Chocolate!
No, the other one.
Personally I think Artefact Of Attraction should be removed as a subtrope from McGuffin. Both of them are subtropes of Plot Device, which I believe is a misuse of the trope relationship system, as only the direct supertrope should be listed, and not the supertrope's supertrope (that's implied anyway).

Overall, I agree with Xtifr.

edited 11th Oct '12 6:02:11 AM by AnotherDuck

Check out my fanfiction!
That version of the interchangability test is a little weird; I mean how far can you boil down the plot to make this determination? Is the whale in Star Trek IV a MacGuffin? Can I replace it with the Mona Lisa? For most of the movie it doesn't really matter that they're after a whale, but most of the significant plot points revolve around the fact that they're trying to get a large water-dwelling mammal into their spaceship without everyone in the past noticing.

If the specific qualities of the plot motivator are important to the plot, then it's not a MacGuffin. Can I replace the One Ring with the Maltese Falcon and not change the story? No, I can't — the qualities of the Ring, primarily Sauron's curse on it and the power it can grant — are driving focal points of the story.

If it was an anonymous gem that had to be destroyed (in a particular way) to kill Sauron, but didn't have anything special besides that, then yes, it would be. See the Horcruxes in Harry Potter for an example of that — they can be anything, and the fact that one is a goblet and one is a tiara are virtually irrelevant to the story. About half of the horcruxes could've been replaced by the Maltese Falcon without making a difference.

There was a discussion over on a different thread about Snakes on a Plane and whether the witness Samuel L Jackson is protecting would be, himself, a MacGuffin. I was under the impression that character can't be a MacGuffin unless they spend almost the entire piece off-screen and doing nothing, like the captured princess or Orcus on His Throne. If the character has screentime and interactions with others, he's no longer a MacGuffin, because he's not really interchangable anymore. For a character to be a MacGuffin they would have to be able to be replaced by a nuclear bomb or a briefcase full of papers without changing the story.

For example, the princess in most Mario Bros games is a MacGuffin — you could replace her with a magic scepter or a big piece of gold and the game doesn't change any. Helen of Troy is a MacGuffin; the war is about her but she doesn't do anything, and you could replace her with a horse or a golden fleece at virtually no impact on the Trojan War.

edited 11th Oct '12 11:42:25 AM by Escher

World's Toughest Milkman
I mean how far can you boil down the plot to make this determination?
Down to its essentials.

Is the whale in Star Trek IV a MacGuffin?

Can I replace it with the Mona Lisa?
Yes. You'd need to change a lot of details, but the basic plot would be unchanged.

most of the significant plot points revolve around the fact that they're trying to get a large water-dwelling mammal into their spaceship
Details. "Heroes face obstacles to their plans."

Can I replace the One Ring with the Maltese Falcon and not change the story?
Actually, I would say yes, though you could argue that it's a stretch. The Ring doesn't need to have powers, as long as people treat it as super-important, and destroying it is the only solution. This plot works better if the MacGuffin is inherently evil, but that's not actually a requirement.

In fact, to some extent, the stories of LotR and The Maltese Falcon are more similar than superficial appearances might suggest.

eta: Remember, there are only Seven Basic Plots. And even if you think that's a bit of an oversimplification (and I agree that it might be), that still the right lines to be thinking along to understand the MacGuffin.

edited 11th Oct '12 12:49:18 PM by Xtifr

"Existential Despair" is an oxymoron.
Speaking of LOTR, of that long bloodied path from Isildur to Frodo, how many bearers actually used the ring for its power of invisibility?

Isildur to Gollum to Bilbo to Frodo to Sam and back to Frodo. It's not that long a list, and not all that bloody, really. And all five of them at least tried to use its invisibility power.

I am conceding that the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings qualifies as a MacGuffin. The One Unicorn Horn or the One Traffic Cone would work just as well (as long as Sauron curses the thing).

Sauron didn't curse it per se, he poured his power into it.

In fact, to some extent, the stories of Lot R and The Maltese Falcon are more similar than superficial appearances might suggest.

Certainly. Maltese Falcon is an example of one of the oldest plots in the book, the quest to obtain the Extremely Valuable Thing. Lord of the Rings is an inversion of that plot. (We have an Extremely Valuable Thing and need to get rid of it.)

Lot R geekery aside, I don't know if Xtifr was being tongue-in-cheek when he said we can't redefine it because it's in dictionary, but you'll note that the definition he linked to is not, in fact, the same as the one we're using. agrees with that link; they both define macguffin as just being an object that drives the plot, with no reference to whether its properties are plot-relevant or not. equivocates: it says that a macguffin "usually" lacks intrinsic importance. Overall, it seems clear to me that "macguffin" is a word in common usage, and that said usage is broader than our current definition. And if we're going to give a trope a one-word name, it behooves us to use that word the same way it's used in the larger world, even if that meaning has drifted slightly since it was coined eighty years ago.

So my suggestion: broaden the meaning of MacGuffin and create a new subtrope, Classic MacGuffin or something for the more specific meaning.

And I agree with Another Duck that Artifact of Attraction is not properly speaking a subtrope of MacGuffin no matter which definition of the latter we use. Objects with supernatural attractiveness are often used to drive plots, but they don't have to be.

edited 11th Oct '12 2:09:47 PM by tbarrie

Here's an example of something that isn't a MacGuffin but still toes the line, most of the artifacts in Jackie Chan Adventures. With the Talismans of the first season most of their powers are irrelevant only to the fact that all of them together would revive Shendu. But the specific powers of the Talismans are eventually used to undermine and eventually defeat him, thereby if those qualities were different they would have to rewrite a significant portion of the story. Same thing with the Panqu Box of the second season, each episode hinged on the box opening a demon portal to have a confrontation with one of Shendu's siblings. If it didn't have those qualities the plot would be different.

The thing about a macguffin is that the specific qualities of the item don't matter to the plot, you can change all sorts of details about what the One Ring can do and why the Allspark is so valuable, but all that matters is that the One Ring and the Allspark need to be destroyed in a certain way. If all that needs to change in the script is an Info Dump on what the item is/can do to keep continuity then it is a macguffin. If you have to change the plot because of it then it isn't a macguffin.

Total posts: 42

TV Tropes by TV Tropes Foundation, LLC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available from
Privacy Policy