Follow TV Tropes

Following

Mac Guffin / Literature

Go To


  • Eric Flint made up a MacGuffin for his book 1632 (he originally thought he was only going to write one book, not a series) called an Assiti Shard that transports a spherical area through time and space to an Alternate Universe. Flint openly states that he made the things up so that he'd have an easy way to create various Alternate History and Science Fiction books.
  • Played around with to hell and back in All the Wrong Questions with the mysterious figurine of the Bombinating Beast, a legendary sea creature. Moxie openly tells Lemony that the statue is worthless junk; she's happy to hand it over to anyone who asks for it, and is openly bemused that people would go to the trouble of stealing it. In traditional MacGuffin style, nobody knows what it does, it's mainly important only because the villain Hangfire wants it, and this drives the antagonism between Ellington (who wants to give it to him) and Lemony (who doesn't). In the final book, this is subverted — the statue is in fact a flute used to summon and control the Bombinating Beast, and it's Lemony that uses it to kill Hangfire. A much straighter MacGuffin example is in the third installment: a library book that may or may not contain pertinent information to the town's destruction is passed around, but it's inevitably useless, as the book ends up destroyed before anyone can finish reading it.
  • Advertisement:
  • Several over the course of the Animorphs series, including the Pemalite crystal, the Anti-Morphing Ray, and the Pemalite ship.
  • In some of the Mysteries books in The Baby-Sitters Club series.
  • In the BattleTech novel Wolves on the Border, the first joint mission between the Wolf's Dragoons and the Ryuken is a raid on the Archernar Proving Grounds. The objective? McGuffin's prototype.
  • Black Duck: A torn $50 bill that the main character finds on a dead body turns out to be the sign that the bearer is the owner of a large shipment of rum, which will be given to him no questions asked.
  • Isaac Asimov's Black Widowers:
    • "Sunset on the Water" had the out of print books.
    • "The Lucky Piece" had a lucky coin.
    • "The Alibi" had "the data", and the government agent explains that the details of "the data" are unimportant, but still secret.
    • "Northwestward": Mr Pennyworth is carrying the most valuable part of Mr Wayne’s Batman memorabilia in a single suitcase. Although he doesn’t lose it, he does have a couple of close calls.
  • Advertisement:
  • Blade of the Guillotine, from the Time Machine gamebook series, is one of the few books in the series which is directly about finding a specific object (Marie Antoinette's diamond necklace.)
  • Brotherband has the Andomal. Nobody knows what it is, but it is jealously guarded by the Skandians. Its name is Skandian for "thing".
  • Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov's vast fortune in The Brothers Karamazov is said to exist, but even the narrator casts aspersions as to how much money he really has, if any. The sons' owed inheritance is the MacGuffin which gets the plot moving in the beginning, but it is only brought up past the middle of the book in passing. The argument could also be made that the sub-plot involving the schoolboys, which is almost entirely unrelated to the main events of the novel, is a MacGuffin to explore some other themes of spirituality.
  • Advertisement:
  • The trunk that Falkland closes in the very first chapter of Caleb Williams, and which Caleb finally opens in Vol. II, seems so important that the play adaptation of this novel was titled The Iron Chest. But in fact Caleb never sees what’s inside the trunk. Its contents are never revealed, and aren’t important to the plot.
  • Cats vs. Robots: Book 1, "This Is War", has the Singularity Chip, which both the Great Feline Empire and the Great Robot Federation want. The reason being that, for cats, it can extend their lives indefinitely, while for robots, it means their batteries never need to recharge.
  • The Camp Half-Blood Series:
    • The first Percy Jackson and the Olympians book, The Lightning Thief, is about recovering Zeus' stolen Master Bolt. In theory, the fact that it is missing makes Zeus and the Olympians in general significantly more vulnerable until it is returned. In practice, it is returned to him and it's absence is irrelevant beyond initiating the plot.
    • In The Heroes of Olympus, the Athena Parthenos. It is a major symbol of the feud between Roman and Greek Demigods, as the Romans hid the statue after conquering Greek cities. Unsurprisingly it's able to restore peace to the two warring factions upon being retunred. The only impact it's nature has on the plot is that the children of Athena subsequently caused every war between the two factions, as a result of Athena's anger at her statue having been stolen. Somewhat unusually for the trope, it's also a 40-ft tall ivory statue, so most of the plot around it (once it's found) is driven by how hard it is to move around.
  • Dancing Aztecs: The gold statue. Too bad no one has any clue which of the sixteen copies is the real one, leading to a Gotta Catch Them All plot.
  • The Dark Tower itself is one.
  • In Dogsbody, the protagonist is searching for a powerful artifact called the Zoi, which has been misappropriated and then lost, while other characters attempt to stop him. The search for the Zoi motivates the action, but the thing itself is never used in the story; the important thing is that the protagonist needs to find it, not the precise nature of what it is.
  • In the web-novel Domina, the toy box is one. It's a more advanced form of the already-powerful toy maker, allowing for easier and faster Bio-Augmentation. The aves (Bird People) stole it to get wings, and quite a few other cultures want it for their own purposes.
  • The first two novels of the Drake Maijstral series revolve around MacGuffins:
    • In The Crown Jewels, Drake is hired to steal what he is told is a small artifact of minor historical significance. He quickly learns that it is actually a device containing the frozen sperm of an Emperor!note  Unfortunately, both the Imperialists, who want to recover it, and the anti-Imperialists, who want to destroy it, know Drake has it. Any action he takes—even none—is liable to leave him marked for death.
    • House of Shards has the Eltdown Shard, a classic sort of MacGuffin. It is a fabulously beautiful gem with a long history of people willing to kill—or die—to possess it. Both Drake and his rival Geoff Fu George are determined to steal it.
  • In Mikhail Akhmanov's Earth Shadow, Dick Simon is sent by the civilized worlds to find out the fate of Earth That Was, which was cut off from the Portal Network at the end of the Exodus. He spends most of the novel looking for the Poltava, a top-of-the-line naval triplehulled cruiser, built shortly before the Exodus. He needs the ship's missiles to destroy a Lunar base that is the cause of the portal interference. He finally finds the derelict ship in a grotto under a mountain. Unfortunately, the missiles have all been used up. He ends up using a completely different (and easier) method of shutting down the transmitter. Had be done that from the start, the book would've been only ten pages long.
  • David Eddings intentionally included these in his books (since the books themselves were built on the premise of taking overused tropes and cliches and making them work), mainly the Orb of Aldur and Bhelliom, although both break the rules by being both plot-relevant and useful after they're claimed by the protagonists. The Sardion is a more exact case: both the heroes and the villains need to reach it for the final confrontation, but even though it is supposed to be a counterpart to the Orb, it never does anything special (except occasionally charm people into moving it to another location, and that is never explicitly shown), and it's destroyed in the final confrontation.
  • Rod Duncan's The Fall of the Gaslit Empire trilogy has two MacGuffin. The protagonist in the first book is hired to find a Duchess's brother who's gone missing while working on an invention that was a box. Several parties are after the invention, though only one person among these parties has actually seen the box in action and he erroneously thinks it's an alchemical device that can transmute. Turns out the box is a crude but powerful chemical laser, and is gets turned over to one of the parties - the International Patent Office. The second MacGuffin is the Bulletcatcher's Handbook, specifically the version that protagonist inherits. The Handbook has evidence of the Patent Office's Dark Secret and they want it bad. The Handbook ends up irrevelant because the protagonist finds plenty of other evidence later and the Handbook even gets destroyed early on by the protagonist. Interestingly the box reappears in the final book and this time its laser function becomes important.
  • Averted in Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov. The Prime Radiant is vital to the Second Foundation. The First Speaker explains that there is only one of it, it is irreplaceable, and they cannot operate without it. It is also easily portable. Nothing happens to it.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's Glory Road contains a classic example: the Egg of the Phoenix, which must be recovered by the hero Oscar after having been stolen from the Empress of Fifty Universes. It has a function, but that function is irrelevant to the rescue plot, and only becomes important in the third part of the story by virtue of its Deconstruction of the Standard Hero Reward.
  • The Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Ultimately, we know the answer, which is 42, but we never really find out the Question, unless it really is "What number do you get when you multiply six by seven?" It fits the trope because all it is is something the Mice want to know, and as we never really discover the answer, it doesn't actually do anything.
  • In Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin, the main characters find and use a vital object called 'The Maguffin'.
  • Anthony Horowitz parodied The Maltese Falcon and North By North West in the first and third books in his Diamond Brothers series, The Falcon's Malteser, and South by South East, the latter of which had the plot kicked off by a character called MacGuffin.
  • The entire universe of intelligent life revolves around a MacGuffin in William Sleator's Interstellar Pig, and then inverts it. First, it's about an object you need to be holding by the end of a boardgame to win it, with the MacGuffin in question called the Piggy. Then, it turns out the Piggy is for real, and everyone is trying to get ahold of it so their species won't be vaporized by the end of the game. Once they've held it for a while, though, the Piggy tells them that if they don't pawn it off on some other species soon, the Piggy will blow a hole in the universe and kill whoever has it. The trope is folded back on itself again, as the human in the game gives the Piggy to some carnivorous fungi, and watches the departing spaceship leaving Earth carefully to see if it will make awesome fireworks. It doesn't.
  • In Michael Flynn's The January Dancer, the harper claims that the object of The Quest is not important; what mattered was Jason and Medea, not the Golden Fleece. The scarred man objects: had he gone after the Tin Whistle or the Aluminum Coffeepot, the failure would have been different.
  • In some of the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P. G. Wodehouse, a silver tea-set creamer, hideously forged in the shape of a cow, becomes the focus of a on-going multi-cornered power-struggle. In other stories, the French chef Anatole is deployed as a Living MacGuffin.
  • The Impossible Virgin in the Modesty Blaise series: A dying man tells Dr Giles Pennyfeather a secret that the villains will do anything to learn. Beyond the villains' determination to obtain it, the precise nature of the secret (the location of a valuable patch of unexploited mineral wealth in a remote part of Africa) has no effect on the plot; the one villain who learns the secret gets to trade on the fact that he has the MacGuffin now, but dies before he has a chance to actually do anything with it, and in the end the heroes decide it's best just to let it lie undisturbed.
  • The King's Ruby in Finn Family Moomintroll. The Groke is after Thingumy and Bob because they stole it from her, and the Magician (translated as "the Hobgoblin") has been searching the whole solar system for it all his life. It doesn't actually do anything aside from looking almost supernaturally nice.
  • The Mortal Instruments; a cup, a sword and a mirror.
  • In Stephanie Burgis's A Most Improper Magick, the missing will, which Sir Neville carries about with him. When Mr. Collingwood guesses he's tortured with guilt for hiding it and claiming all their mother's estate, Kat points out that doesn't sound like Sir Neville. it was actually to keep it hidden until he could find a way to break the magic preserving it.
  • The latter half of The Mouse That Roared is mostly concerned with the diplomatic fallout of the Micro Monarchy of Grand Fenwick not merely winning a war with the United States but obtaining an advanced thermonuclear weapon. Fortunately for the world, no actual nuclear fallout ensues.
  • In Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, the tape of Judy Bridgewater's Songs After Dark is one, but lampshaded to the point of disrupting the plot: "I stood there quite still, looking at the plastic case, unsure whether or not I was delighted. For a second, it even felt like a mistake. The tape had been the perfect excuse for all this fun, and now it turned up, we'd have to stop."
  • The Weather Wizard in the Nightfall (Series). The plot is set in motion because the Resistance seeks to destroy it, but it never appears in the first book.
  • Frequent in the Philip Marlowe novels, what with them being a major Trope Codifier of the hard-boiled genre.
    • The High Window has Marlowe tracking down the Brasher Dubloon, a legendary coin worth a fortune that leaves a trail of dead thieves behind it; come the ending, it turns out a minor character sold it for a new start with a clean slate, but it's unimportant considering Marlowe uncovers a framing and a few murders in the process.
    • The Long Goodbye has Marlowe's drinking buddy, Terry Lennox, fleeing the country and paying Marlowe with a $5000 bill. Marlowe, believing he hasn't earned the sum of cash, spends the entire plot refusing to spend it. Its only significant uses are: to involve Marlowe in the second case; and so Marlowe can pay it back to Lennox, giving them an excuse to meet up again in the conclusion.
  • Played with in A.L. Phillips's The Quest of the Unaligned. While the Prince's Crown that the titular Quest focuses on actually behaves as more of a Plot Device, since its unique magical properties are responsible for the entire last third of the plot, almost nobody knows about its powers. Therefore, for most of the first half of the book, the Crown is treated as a MacGuffin, even though it really isn't.
  • The enormous, apocalyptic disaster at the beginning of The Road. We never find out what it was, because that's not important.
  • In The Scar, the magus fin is this for the pursuing grindylow... or so Bellis thinks.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events features a mysterious sugar bowl (a.k.a. the Vessel For Disaccharides) that everyone is looking for. In the last volume, they don't find it. It is implied to possibly contain horseradish, which is a cure for Medusoid Mycellium .
    • The Baudelaire fortune.
    • In the Netflix adaptation, the thing inside the Sugar Bowl that both sides of the V.F.D. schism want so badly, is sugar, a special kind made from a horseradish hybrid, that immunizes the body against the Medusoid Mycellium.
  • The first-edition Seven Pillars Of Wisdom and the Martian plaque function as these in the first and third books of Venus Prime.
  • In the Shadowleague books, there's the Heart of Myrial, and the Hierarch's ring is a borderline example after Gilarra loses it to the Ak'Zahar.
  • The Saghred in Lisa Shearin's fantasy series: an evil stone of cataclysmic power accidentally bonded to the main character. Everyone is after it, but Raine just wants to get rid of it. Also an Artifact of Doom and a Clingy MacGuffin.
  • Lampshaded in the David Bischoff novel Star Fall, in which the protagonist transfers bodies for a vacation. Unwittingly, he ends up with an illegally modified artificial body capable of all sorts of sci-fi/007 skullduggery, which any number of elements are after. The type of illegal artificial body he is inhabiting is called, you guessed it, a MacGuffin.
  • The Ghost Fleet in Startide Rising plays no larger role than to sic the whole galaxy on one damaged spaceship full of dolphins. Everyone, and I mean everyone wants to know where it is.
  • The oh-so-important crystal gravfield trap in The Thrawn Trilogy. The Republic ostensibly needs one to shoot down the cloaked asteroids Thrawn deployed above Coruscant, and they wage a massive battle at the climax of the last book to steal one from The Empire... and it turns out they never really needed it in the first place.
  • In Rudyard Kipling's The Three-Decker, the tendency of wills to be MacGuffins is tweaked:
    We'd stolen wills for ballast and a crew of missing heirs.
  • The silver Tiberius (a rare ancient Roman tribute coin) in Arthur Machen's The Three Impostors, and by extension, the man with the spectacles and the dark whiskers, who stole it from the titular impostors. The exact significance of the coin is never revealed.
  • The Queen's diamond studs in The Three Musketeers.
    • One of Simon Hawke's Time Wars books plays out around the plot of The Three Musketeers, and the villain replaces the diamond studs with future-tech explosives, planning to detonate them in the Queen's court and thrown history off track — thus making them a McGuffin for a different reason.
  • In Poul Anderson's "Time Patrol", it's the chest of radioactive materials found in a Dark Ages tomb during Victorian Britain. They don't merely have to get it back, they have to get it back before it was buried.
  • In J. R. R. Tolkien's books:
    • The three Silmarils in The Silmarillion act as MacGuffins for most of the plot. The Silmarils are not precisely MacGuffins, because they demonstrate a few powers (such as piercing the barriers around Doriath and Valinor), but the characters desire the Silmarils only for their beauty. Wars ensue as many characters fight for possession of the Silmarils, never intending to invoke their powers.
    • The Arkenstone in The Hobbit is a true MacGuffin; it does nothing except look pretty. It becomes the subject of a Stolen MacGuffin Reveal.
    • The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings (though commonly cited as an example) is explicitly NOT a MacGuffin, as its power to corrupt anyone who comes near it is a major driver of the plot, and it is arguably an independent character in its own right. For one thing, it got Boromir killed, and would have been impossible to destroy were it not for Gollum's intervention.
  • The plot of the classic satirical novel The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov revolves around a treasure hidden in a chair. By the time the main characters find it, the treasure is long gone
  • The painting "Moscow Asylum" in David Madsen's USSA, for a while. The protagonist wants to find because it's valuable to the artist, and he wants some information from the artist. A bunch of goons who steal it from him only do so because they assume it has some more intrinsic value to case he working on.
  • Villains by Necessity: The Spectrum Key, which is split into six pieces located in hidden, guarded places.
  • Lampshaded in Walking on Glass by Iain Banks. At the end of Steven's story, Steven finds a box of McGuffin's Zen Brand matches, on the back of which is written the answer to Quiss and Ajayi's riddle. Quiss and Ajayi have forfeited all future attempts to answer the riddle, because Quiss has destroyed the Game Table, but we know that their current attempt, earned by completing a game of "Tunnel", will be correct because Ajayi finds a copy of Walking on Glass in the remains of the Game Table.
  • In the Warhammer 40,000 novel Legacy, it's Hoyyon Phrax's Rogue Trader charter, an ancient document which is desired by three separate parties for differing reasons who will stop at nothing to get their hands on it. Shira Calpurnia, for her part, is supposed to preside at the legal hearing to determine the charter's final fate.
  • The All-Seeing Eye from Warren the 13th. Everyone wants it for its legendary power, but none know for sure what it really is.
  • The Cold War thriller The Widow of Desire made a Russian lynx coat one of these, because vital information was smuggled inside it.
  • In the historical novel Wings of Dawn: The cache of Druidic lore and treasure that can be used to prove the Ancient Conspiracy's existence. Also the cache of books from the Orient that Thomas has, which both conspiracies are trying to get their hands on.
  • In Yeats is Dead the supposed James Hoyce manuscript fulfills this role being the driving force behind many murders.


Top

How well does it match the trope?

Example of:

/

Media sources:

/

Report