"MacGuffin" (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for an object or element in a story that drives the plot, but serves no further purpose. It won't pop up again later, it won't explain the ending, and it won't do anything except possibly distract you while you try to figure out its significance. It usually takes the form of a mysterious artifact, package, or weapon that everyone in the story is chasing, though in some cases it won't even be shown.
To determine if an object is a MacGuffin, one can ask certain questions:
- Is the nature of the item or the item itself interchangeable? If the item is of great value - and is desirable or important solely because of that value, rather than any properties of the item itself - there is little difference between a diamond, a priceless painting, or an exotic statue, as the objectives surrounding it would differ only trivially: The plans surrounding its theft would be largely the same, the mission to transport it to a specific place would be largely the same, and the investigation to locate it would be the same. When reading the story or script, replace the name of the item and ask if the story is all that different.note
- Is the nature of the item irrelevant to the plot? All MacGuffins have some extraordinary value, whether it be monetary, prestige, historical significance, supernatural power, or forgotten knowledge. These things are often, but not always, explained in detail within the story so that the audience understands the characters' desire for the item. These elements, however, are not vital to build the plot; any narrative usefulness from having the item is either nonexistent (often due to No MacGuffin, No Winner) or relegated to the coda of the story, when the plot and the desire for the item is over. In other words, if whatever function the item may have is actually relevant to the plot (such as a magic sword being used to cut something that is normally uncuttable), it is not a true MacGuffin (contrast MockGuffin, for when an object that isn't really a MacGuffin is mistaken for one).
If it passes both of these criteria, then congratulations - it's a MacGuffin!
A common MacGuffin story setup can be summarized as "Quickly! We must find X before they do!". While a MacGuffin is technically a kind of Plot Device, that term actually encompases much more, referring to anything that motivates a character to get from point A to point B and beyond (an important distinction to make): This could be as simple as an invitation to the party; the invitation gets the plot going but is not the goal of the characters. Compare Magnetic Plot Device, which is an explanation of why the characters are getting into repeated adventures.
The term "MacGuffin" was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, who credited one of his screenwriters, Angus McPhail, with the creation of this concept and the name for it, citing a particular school-boy joke:
Hitchcock and McPhail were not the first to formulate this concept: Silent-film actress Pearl White starred in cliffhanger serials (most famously in the film 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 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, MacGuffins are 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.
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 detract from a work, if the point is to focus on the characters.
- Accidentally Broke the MacGuffin: When someone breaks the MacGuffin when they needed it.note
- Artifact of Attraction: If the object itself is inherently irresistible.
- Artifact of Doom: If the object itself is inherent but at the same time can prove to be pure evil. Which can result in insanity, death, or worse.
- Artifact of Hope: An object that would be ideal for slaying an otherwise unslayable evil. Odds are that unslayable evil will want it too just to make sure the hero can't use it against them.
- Clingy MacGuffin: Inversion of this trope — its most important attribute is that the person who has it wants to be rid of it.
- Demanding Their Head: A bounty is placed on a character with specific orders to cut off their head and return with 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.
- Fakin' MacGuffin: Someone creates a counterfeit MacGuffin, either to throw pursuers off their trail, or to resolve a Hostage for MacGuffin situation without actually giving away the real MacGuffin.
- Fatal MacGuffin: Acquiring this Macguffin can be hazardous to your health.
- 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 or may not be a MacGuffin.
- Gotta Catch Them All: When there is more than one MacGuffin and the story necessitates acquiring them all.
- Hastily Hidden MacGuffin: A valuable stolen object, hidden to avoid detection by the authorities (or rival thieves, or whichever party is trying to take it), which the thieves then must scramble to get back.
- Hostage for MacGuffin: The heroes have the MacGuffin. The Villain has a hostage and wants the MacGuffin. Trade ya?
- Hostage MacGuffin: The hostage is the MacGuffin, the thing the heroes are searching for.
- 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.
- It May Help You on Your Quest: An irrelevant object turns out to be useful in the end.
- 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 swoop in and steal it from them or force them to hand it over via hostage situation or Sadistic Choice. 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 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-Person Reveal: The Reveal that the MacGuffin they've been looking for has been with them all along, in the form of one of the characters.
- MacGuffin Title: The MacGuffin is right there in the title of the work.
- MacGuffin Turned Human: The plot where the object that everyone is looking for turns out to have been transformed into a person.
- 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, that is used as a MacGuffin.
- MacGuffin Super-Person: A Living MacGuffin sought after for some supernatural ability or quality they have.
- MockGuffin: A MacGuffin that turns out to be worthless.
- Mundane MacGuffin Person: A Living MacGuffin sought after for some mundane ability or quality they have.
- No MacGuffin, No Winner: Neither side has the MacGuffin in the end. It's been destroyed, lost, or discovered to be fake.
- One True Sequence: The heroes and villains reach the MacGuffin simultaneously, regardless of how much sense it makes timescale-wise.
- 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.
- Plot-Triggering Book: A unique book that sets the plot into motion when it's found by a character or is given to one character which has a sort of significance but doesn't necessarily need to be present throughout the story.
- A Plot in Deed: A land deed drives the plot, mainly because who owns it or gets to inherit it is the conflict.
- 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.
- Slippery MacGuffin: No one can seem to hold on to it for very long.
- 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 a fake, or stolen before the thief got it.
- Sword of Plot Advancement: When the MacGuffin is a weapon.
- Timeline-Altering MacGuffin: An otherwise unimportant item from the future that, if left in the past during time travel, will have serious consequences.
- Two Halves Make a Plot: A MacGuffin is in two pieces and need to be put together for the plot to move forward.
- Zillion-Dollar Bill: The MacGuffin is valued only for its monetary value.
Do not confuse with Plot Device. Please, don't. Also not to be confused with the tribe from Brave, or anyone of Scottish descent. Also not to be confused with a breakfast sandwich served in McDonald's restaurants.
- Anime & Manga
- Comic Books
- Live-Action TV
- Religion & Mythology
- Video Games
- Western Animation
- Happy Heroes: The elemental wands in Season 8 are sought after by both the Supermen, who want to use them to wake up the president, and Big M. and his henchmen, who want to use them to assassinate the president instead.
- The Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf Story Arc Great War in the Bizarre World features the Luminous Ray, which is needed by the goats to lift the mind-control placed on the bees but is also being sought after by the wolves.
- Bring Me to Life has a couple of examples:
- "Browncoats at World's End" turns Jack Sparrow's compass (Pirates of the Caribbean) into one for the crew of Serenity; after they find themselves trapped in the past and separated from their ship, their only clue is that they must find Jack Sparrow in order to find their ship, eventually guessing that the compass must be held by the right person to truly find Serenity (for example, Mal cannot use it as he is torn between the ship and his love for Inara).
- The Captain of the Virtual Console has the Runestones, manifestations of players' love for gaming.
- In Daphne Greengrass and the Boy Who Lived, the Order of the Phoenix all acknowledge that the prophecy about Harry and Voldemort is basically this. Even without knowing the exact content of the prophecy, they all agree that it wouldn't be that useful to Voldemort even if he acquired it, but by encouraging their enemy to focus on retrieving the prophecy they ensure that the Death Eaters aren't going to do something more dangerous.
- The New Adventures of Invader Zim has the Meekrob crystal containing the codes that lead to Project Domination, which all three teams are after (Zim and Tak and their respective allies to conquer Earth with it, Dib and his friends to stop either of them from doing so).
- In The Night Unfurls, the Pantielle ancestral sword serves this purpose in the Ansur Arc. Its only purpose is to give Kyril a secondary reason to go to Ansur — to find it and return it to its rightful owner. His primary objective is to ascertain the situation in this place, to see whoever important is in cahoots with the Black Dogs (and root them out if necessary). Kyril even says that the sword is merely for ceremonial purposes, not something practical to fight with.
- In Pokéumans the Gemstone Files take this role at first, but are later replaced by the Dimensional Gems.
- In "Doctor Who in the Multiverse of Madness", when the Thirteenth Doctor visits the Marvel Cinematic Universe, learning of the Infinity Stones prompts her to compare them to the segments of the Key to Time, as each were six powerful artefacts that could come together to give the wielder great power.
- 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 titular Stone from Zaltec II: The Generation Stone serves as this.
- World Tag Team Championships were a Macguffin in the heyday of the National Wrestling Alliance. While the NWA forbid its member promotions from crowning their own World Heavyweight Champion, they were free to create "World" champions in other weight classes and divisions. Thus, most NWA promotions had a World Tag Team Championship that was just a glorified regional title never defended outside of the territory. It also made the promotion look better to fans, who thought they were being treated to World Championship caliber matches even when the World Heavyweight Champion wasn't in town. Of course, most local fans had no idea that other World Tag Team Championships existed; unless they read the Apter wrestling magazines. In which case, it was often confusing seeing these titles listed as "NWA World Tag Team Championship (Memphis version)" or "NWA World Tag Team Championship (Mid-Atlantic version), etc."
- 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 High Programmers variation also recommends throwing in some "Cow Creamers", side goals for the Ultraviolets to fight over so they can trade them to a NPC.
- 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.
- Referenced in Mistborn Adventure Game, where the book uses the term "Macguffin" to describe a Secret that has no function other than to be the thing everyone wants. For example, a vast hoard of precious metal that may or may not exist, and which is of little use anyway, because the world is coming to an end and there's nothing to buy with that wealth.
- In Warhammer 40,000, a Standard Template Construct fragment makes for an all-purpose MacGuffin. STCs were machines from the Dark Age of Technology containing the sum total of human technological knowledge, plus the capability to build any device. No working STCs exist anywhere in the 41st Millennium, but a printout from the STC's library can be worth entire solar systems, so the Imperium will use every means at their disposal to grab one.
- Most of the Dungeons & Dragons campaign Dragon Heist is a chase after the Stone of Golorr, a sentient but basically useless artifact. There is a coda where the Stone points the way to a dragon hoard, at which point the dragon reveals itself to be the Big Good and makes the "final battle" a doddle, but the real story is already over by then.
- In Iphigenia in Tauris, the MacGuffin is an image of Artemis, which if stolen would bring liberation to Orestes from his mental toils, as was promised by Apollo.
- 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.
- In Agatha Christie's Spider's Web, the root of the trouble is something hidden in the house by the previous owner, which unscrupulous people are trying to get hold of. Until the denouement, neither the audience nor the characters (with one exception) even know what it is, only that it's said to be worth thousands of pounds.
- Queen of Thieves: In "Becoming the Gilded Poppy", Jett's story of how he joined the Poppy involves him stealing some item. Beyond it being valuable enough to steal, the nature of the item is so unimportant that no one even remembers what it was; visually, it's depicted as a pixelated blur.
I grab the—whatever it was—and slip it into my jacket.
- 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 vague. They simply want it.
- Deconstructed with the discs on the Dream SMP, especially in Season 2. Materially speaking, they're worthless, and indistinguishable from any other copy of Cat or Mellohi on the server. However, Tommy ascribes a lot of sentimental value to them, and both Tommy and Dream give them more and more symbolic value as the struggle between them progresses, becoming representations of the power Dream has over Tommy and L'Manburg. Over the course of the Vengeance Arc, Tommy starts to believe that getting the discs back will remove the power Dream has over him and thereby end all conflict (which is wrong, but not an unreasonable conclusion to come to), and with Techno egging him on, goes to greater and greater lengths to get them back. His Heel Realization at the Green Festival happens when he realizes he'd been wrong to put the discs over his friends and country, and while he doesn't stop chasing them, he keeps his priorities in check from that point onward. However, Dream has no such realization and continues to treat them as all-important to the point of putting them on literal pedestals, and sabotages himself at multiple points to get them, and his taunting Tommy with the discs is what ultimately leads to his downfall. Tommy and Dream both experience the consequences of giving the discs ultimate importance, but while Tommy uses those consequences to learn and grow into a better and wiser person, Dream refuses to confront any realistic flaws, and that's why Tommy wins.
- The Project Orwell software in series 1 of KateModern, which is mysteriously absent from the second series.
- The Ningyo: Christopher Marlowe's piece of the map leading to The Ningyo.
- The Nostalgia Chick has a jar of mayonnaise that has been transformed into one by Lord MacGuffin.
- The Tower of Pimps, a stack of four gold blocks on an obsidian block pedestal, in Rooster Teeth's, "Let's Play Minecraft". Nothing fancy, just bragging rights material for whoever wins the challenge of the episode.
- The dimensional transponder in The Cartoon Man which turns out to be a pen the characters found earlier. In the third movie, the Glove of the Animator becomes one as well.
- This trope was featured in Episode 2 of the TV Tropes podcast On the Tropes.
- The Rise of the Budget remake of Troopers has the Orb. Lampshaded, of course.
Dread Lord: I kinda feel like the Orb is this vaguely defined MacGuffin.
- The campaign in LARPs features a magical artifact called the Eleventh Eye.
- Dave Sindelar of Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings coined the term "Gizmo MacGuffin", to refer to a MacGuffin that is a type of advanced science fiction technology that is not used, but only fought over. An example from many serials of the 30s and 40s is a death ray that the good guys and the bad guys fight over.
- The Imperial Hereditary Seal in Farce of the Three Kingdoms. Sun Ce openly refers to it as a Plot Device, and everyone treats it as though it is important, although it really doesn't bestow anything. Later the narrator steals it from Cao Cao's effects in order to use it to legitimize Liu Bei.
- Overly Sarcastic Productions has a video discussing the subject, citing the Infinity Stones as a textbook example, having great power but only being used to power up the villain at most (the Time Stone is the exception, since it's used as a Chekhov's Gun), while the One Ring is a subversion, since its inherently corruptive nature is intrinsic to the story, and could not be replaced with any shiny jewelry.
- In Potion Seller, a knight is trying to purchase the strongest potions before heading into battle, and the potion seller refuses to serve the knight on the grounds that the potions are too strong for the knight to handle. The video is entirely about the knight and the potion seller arguing about the potions, and the actual nature of the potions themselves is never really elaborated on.