In fiction , a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin gold maguffin ) is a plot of the goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effects on the characters and their motivations. The most common type of MacGuffin is a person, place, or thing (such as money or an object of value). Other types include victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.

The MacGuffin technique is common in movies, especially thrillers . Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act , and thereafter declines in importance. It can be reappearing at the climax of the story but sometimes is actually forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively identified as plot coupons . [1] [2]


History and use

The use of MacGuffin has a plot device predates the name “MacGuffin”. [3] The Holy Grail of Arthurian Legend has been cited as an example of an early MacGuffin. [3] The World War I will be actress Pearl White used weenie to identify whatever object (a roll of film, a rare coin, expensive diamonds, etc.) impelled the heroes, and often the villains as well, to pursue each other through the convoluted plots of Pauline and the other silent serials in which she starred. [4] In the 1929 detective novelThe Maltese Falcon , a small statuette provides both the book’s eponymous title and its motive for intrigue.

The name “MacGuffin” was coined by the screenwriter Angus MacPhail , [5] and was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s.

Alfred Hitchcock

The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term “MacGuffin” and the technique with his 1935 film The 39 Steps , an early example of the concept. [6] [7] Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University in New York :

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, ‘What’s up in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers, ‘Oh, that’s a MacGuffin’. The first one asks, ‘What’s a MacGuffin?’ ‘Well,’ the other man says, ‘it’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says, ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers, ‘Well then, that’s no MacGuffin!’ So you see that MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut , Hitchcock explained the term “MacGuffin” using the same story. [8] [9]

Hitchcock’s term “MacGuffin” helped him to make sure that his films were not actually available on the surface. Hitchcock also related this anecdote in a television interview for Richard Schickel’s documentary The Men Who Made the Movies , and in an interview with Dick Cavett . [10]

Screenwriter Angus MacPhail , a friend of Hitchcock, may have originally coined the term, according to author Ken Mogg. [11]

George Lucas

On the commentary soundtrack to the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope , writer and director George Lucas describes R2-D2 as “the main driving force of the movie … what you say in the movie business is the MacGuffin … the object of everybody’s search “. [12] In TV interviews, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object qui around the plot revolves, as to what purpose That object SPECIFICALLY is, he Declared, “The audience do not care”. [13] In contrast, Lucas argues that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that “the audience should care about the dueling heroes and villains on screen”.

Yves Lavandier

For filmmaker and drama writing theorist Yves Lavandier , in the strictly Hitchcockian sense, a MacGuffin is a secret that motivates the villains. [15] North by Northwest ‘ s Supposed MacGuffin is nothing That Motivates the protagonist; Roger Thornhill’s objective is to extricate himself from the predicament that the mistaken identity has created, and what matters to Vandamm and the CIA is of little importance to Thornhill. MacGuffins of The Lady Vanishes , The 39 Steps , and Foreign Correspondent . In a broader sense, says Lavandier, a MacGuffin denotes any justification for the external conflictual premises of a work.[16]


Film is a particular user of the technical MacGuffin. [17] Examples from Hitchcock films include plans for a silent plane in the 39 Steps , radioactive uranium ore in Notorious , and a clause of a secret peace treaty in Foreign Correspondent . [18] Examples of the film include the Maltese Falcon in the 1941 film of the same name , the meaning of “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane (1941), [19] The Heart of the Ocean Necklace in 1997’s Titanic , [20] and the “Rabbit’s Foot” in Mission: Impossible III (2006). [21][22] In discussing the mixed critical reception of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) in qui a primary criticism Was That the crystal skull in the movie Was seen as an unsatisfying MacGuffin, director Steven Spielberg Said, “I sympathize with people who did not like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin “. [23]

In both film and literature, the Holy Grail is often used as a MacGuffin. [24] The 1975 cult classic surreal comedic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail is loosely structured around a knightly quest for the sacred relic . Another well-known example is the infamous briefcase essential throughout 1994’s Pulp Fiction . This device adheres to the characteristic of “little to no narrative explanation” by never revealing the glowing contents of the briefcase, despite being quintessentially priceless and violently coveted by many major characters.

Rambaldi Artifacts in Alias ; [25] the orb in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. ; [26] and Krieger Waves in the Star Trek: The Next Generation Episode ” A Matter of Perspective “. [27] [28] Carl Macek created a MacGuffin to unite the storylines of the three separate anime that composed Robotech . [29] The Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been described as a kind of topological MacGuffin: “a shortcut, in place of scientific explanation”, as Joss Whedonput it. [30]

Examples in literature include the television set in Wu Ming ‘s novel 54 and the container in William Gibson ‘s Spook Country . [31] [32] [33]

In the online game The Kingdom of Loathing , the player’s character must eventually complete a long and convoluted quest named “player name and The Quest for the Holy MacGuffin”. [34] [35] It involves going to multiple locations while following clues from the character’s father’s diary and collecting various items. Eventually it ends in a battlefield and the MacGuffin is returned to the council. The game never reveals what exactly it is or how it will help in saving the kingdom.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe , the Infinity Stones serve as MacGuffins. [36]

See also

  • Alien space bats
  • Big Dumb Object
  • Chekhov’s gun
  • Deus ex machina
  • Fake Shemp
  • Red herring
  • Sampo
  • Stanley Elkin
  • The Double McGuffin


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  3. ^ Jump up to:b Dr. Marjory T. Ward, “King Arthur Revisited” in Dr. Andrew Keen (ed.) “Proceedings of the Second History / Literature Conference on Medieval Literature”
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