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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 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 
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  • 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:

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 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.

MacGuffin sub-tropes:

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. Also not to be confused with a breakfast sandwich served in McDonald's restaurants.

Example subpages:

Other Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Asian 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.

    Fan Works 
  • 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 Pokéumans the Gemstone Files take this role at first, but are later replaced by the Dimensional Gems.
  • The Captain of the Virtual Console has the Runestones, manifestations of players' love for gaming.
  • 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).
  • Bring Me to Life has a couple of examples:
    • The Keystone, a crystal which the First needs for its plan to access the Eye of Creation and destroy reality.
    • Hope's Dagger, a weapon forged at the dawn of time, which is the only thing capable of harming the First.

    Fairy Tales 
  • 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.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • 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."

    Tabletop Games 
  • 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 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.

    Theme Parks 

    Visual Novels 
  • 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.

    Web Original 
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Mc Guffin, Golden Fleece, Arbitrary Plot Driving Item, Interchangable Plot Driving Item, Item Of Plot Advancement, Interchangeable Important Item


The Infinity Stones

The Infinity Stones are six stones that, when in the wrong hands, could alter and even destroy the universe itself.

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