Too often when I’m writing my reviews I find myself wanting to talk about The MacGuffin. At times, when I read these indie comics I want to point out the writer’s MacGuffin or lack of one. Then I realize that most people would have no idea what I’m talking about. So I decided to devote an article to the MacGuffin so that in future, I can link back to this article and save me the time of explaining this key writers concept.
It’s extremely important that aspiring comic book writers understand this concept. It’s also important to point out that there are varying definitions of the MacGuffin. So I’ll begin with my simple interpretation:
The MacGuffin is the plot device that the protagonist pursues; it’s an object that drives the story. It takes the form of an object, a person, place or sometimes a concept.
My favorite example is the Lost Ark in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Often it is the secret plans that the spy must acquire. It’s the missing jewels the PI must find. It’s the person responsible for the murder. It’s the zombie virus cure, the Maltese Falcon, the Holy Grail and the Infinity Stones. The MacGuffin could be conceptual, such as Superman’s desire for truth, justice and the American Way. According to many, including Alfred Hitchcock, it’s the linchpin of any mystery, detective or suspense story.
Speaking of Alfred Hitchcock, he was the key advocate of the term. Some say he coined it but according to him, one of his screen writers, Angus McPhail is responsible to for the phrase. When asked “what is a MacGuffin?” Hitchcock would share this now famous story (0:38):
Now there are some varying interpretations of the MacGuffin. Some say it is extremely valuable in the story. Others say it lacks any intrinsic importance. Hitchcock says it’s nothing (that’s a headscratcher). Some say its importance to the story diminishes as the story goes on. I prefer to keep the definition simple and accessible. It’s an object that drives the story. Check out the video below to explore the interpretations further.
Why is the MacGuffin important? If you are a writer, it is critical that you understand your story, its plot and the driving forces behind your plot. Without a good understanding, you’ll lead your reader around on a pointless journey with little value. The MacGuffin is a means of focusing the story.
Check out this excerpt from an article by Michael Kurland:
"Is it possible to write a story, even a mystery story, without a MacGuffin?
So what does this have to do with comic books? If you have to ask then you clearly haven’t read enough comic books. Comics aren’t always about superheroes, I hope you take the time to read other genres. Comics have heavy ties to mystery and thrillers. Hint: What does DC stand for? Wouldn’t it be fitting that Batman, The World’s Greatest Detective, have a MacGuffin? The MacGuffin even gets a shout out in “The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics” by Dennis O’Neil. A majority of comics are action/adventure/thrillers that engage readers, so it’s fair to say that a majority of comics feature some type of MacGuffin.
I highly encourage writers to study the MacGuffin and apply what they learned to their own writings. Every so often when I review a comic I find myself saying that the story is pointless or lacks a MacGuffin. I’m not telling writers to change of simplify their story either. Don’t forcibly shoehorn some fabricated object to chase on account of me. I simply ask that writers be aware of the MacGuffin in their story “snickering in the wings.”
I hope this lesson was helpful to writers and story enthusiasts alike!
Till Next time!
p.s. I highly encourage you to read this essay by sci-fi writer Michael Kurland discussing the MacGuffin.
p.p.s. Check out the video below to learn more about the MacGuffin and it's complexities.