A MacGuffin is an item that becomes the central focus of the plot—despite the fact that it doesn’t really matter what it actually is. It has become a staple feature of blockbuster films, even though some call it lazy plotting—but what is its purpose?
I’m writing this coming off of watching the newest Marvel movie, Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel movies have become famous for MacGuffin plotting, which can take a few shapes.
- Bad guy wants to get the MacGuffin, we have to get it first
- Bad guy has the MacGuffin, we have to take it/stop him from using it
- We have to get the MacGuffin to stop the bad guy (and/or his plan)
- We want the MacGuffin (for money, save the world, etc.?), bad guy wants it too
I’m sure there are more, but the point is, any plot that can be more or less revolved around an object could be called a MacGuffin plot. Some plots have a MacGuffin subplot or use a MacGuffin as an element of the larger plot, wherein finding the object is a small part of the larger plot.
As usual, there’s nothing wrong with a MacGuffin plot. It’s a staple of fantasy fiction, going back to the One Ring of Lord of the Rings, or the Sorcerer’s Stone/Horcruxes of Harry Potter. And in the Marvel movies, we’ve had the Tesseract, the Aether, and now the Orb.
MacGuffins are actually really useful for making an epic plot simple. A villain’s plan to take over the universe and/or destroy it could be really complicated—or it could be really simple, just getting the object. That makes stopping their plan equally simple, while also including lots of action. Instead of having to deal with armies or elections or complex social forces, villainy and heroism can be reduced to a game of capture-the-flag. But, add enough “import” to the object, or to what the villain (or in cases of positive MacGuffins, the hero) wants to do with it, and you still get an epic-feeling story.
Likewise, it provides a simple ending to an epic story. In the “real world,” stopping an enemy army is rarely as easy as killing a single person, even the leader—and though fantasy stories rarely attempt to resemble reality (nor should they need to), it would be a stretch to believe that an entire social movement would just end if the bad guy’s taken out. However, give the bad guy and his legions a single plan, stop that plan by stealing/destroying its central object, and it’s marginally believable that their momentum would be stopped dead. Story over.
I don’t think MacGuffin plots need to end; they can be really useful, and they’re great as a starting point in building an epic story. If you want to move away from them or complicate them, focus on developing the characters (including the villain) so that they’re more than just chess pieces on the board. Also work on complicating the plans and battles around the object, so that the conflict is more complex than just toddlers fighting over a stuffed animal. And, if you like, work on thematic elements to deepen the conflict—though the fight may ultimately be reduced to who has the ball, why they want the ball or what they’re going to do with it could have a lot of depth and resonance.
Take the time to explore motivations, backstories, relationships, social forces, and characters, and even the cheesiest MacGuffin plot could become something more.