and in spy stories it is most always the papers."
A 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 serves no further purpose. It won't pop up again later, it won't explain the ending, it won't 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:
- Is the nature of the item interchangeable? If it is an object of great value which is important because of said value, rather than any properties of the item itself, there is little difference between a diamond, priceless painting, or exotic statue; the quest 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, the investigation to locate it would be the same, etc. Imagine when reading the 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 desire. But these elements are not vital to build the plot; any usefulness from having the item is either nonexistent (often due to No MacGuffin, No Winner) or relegated to the coda of the story and the plot and the desire for the item is over. In other words, if whatever function the MacGuffin may have is actually relevant to the plot (such as a magic sword being used to cut something that is normally uncuttable), it is technically not a true MacGuffin.
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!". A standard Plot Device is broader, being anything that motivates a character to get from point A to point B and beyond, which 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 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 Angus 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 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.
Contrast Mock Guffin, for when an object that isn't really a MacGuffin is mistaken for one.
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 he needed it.note
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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 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.
- Mock Guffin: 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Anime & Manga
- Comic Books
- Live-Action TV
- Religion and Mythology
- Video Games
- Web Comics
- Western Animation
- 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:
- 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 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.
- 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 vague. They simply want it.
- 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.