Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Mysterious MacGuffin

Mac·Guf·fin  noun \mə-ˈgə-fən\
Definition of MACGUFFIN : an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance (Merriam-Webster
Okay, I’ll admit it: I partly chose to write about MacGuffins because I just like saying the word (go ahead, try it!). But on a more serious note, I’m in the midst of crafting a new mystery and it’s got me thinking about them.

In case you don’t know a MacGuffin is, it’s what the whole story is about, yet at the same it doesn’t really matter what it is. Clear? ☺

Wikipedia says, “a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, protect or control, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important.”

Alfred Hitchcock is probably best known for MacGuffins. Here he is, explaining it all:

It’s R2-D2 and the Death Star plans in Star Wars, the statuette in the Maltese Falcoln, the ring in The Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Samwise and everyone else could just have easily been questing over a necklace or a stone or the deed to Middle Earth. The story would be the same, no matter the object.

In kidlit, it’s the baseball card in Swindle, the veena in Vanished, the horcruxes in Harry Potter, the painting in Chasing Vermeer, the million dollars in The Westing Game, Hamiathes's Gift in The Thief, the 39 clues in….well, The 39 Clues.

And, as I write that, I can’t help but think, the MacGuffin is also, oftentimes, the hook of the book. It’s the funny, intriguing, unexpected thing that might get kids to pick it up. In the library where I work, I can barely finish saying “original Babe Ruth baseball card” before Swindle is snatched out of my hands (that dog on the cover helps, too!).

I also think that the tighter the link the MacGuffin has to who the main character is, the more compelling the story. That’s why Neela’s story is so strong in Vanished. It’s her veena that’s stolen and it has deep ties to her family and her identity (it also may be cursed, which, again, helps with the hook). 

So…back to plotting. A MacGuffin that’s unique, funny, or surprising—AND that is personal to who your main character is. Hmmm. MacGuffins may be trickier than they seem...even though they’re not really about anything at all.

W.H. Beck is a school librarian by day and middle grade author by night. Her first mystery, Malcolm at Midnight, stars classroom pets at midnight (it's MacGuffin is a missing iguana). You can find her online (Beck, not the iguana)  at http://www.whbeck.com.

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