MacGuffins and Myth

Mystery fans talk about MacGuffins as something elusive that drives the mystery.  It can be an object the sleuth hunts down, like the falcon figurine in Dashiell Hammett’s famous 1929 novel The Maltese Falcon.  If the MacGuffin is something the protagonist believes exists for whatever reason, and if it’s something sought but never seen, then we can’t be sure if it really exists.  Maybe it’s a myth.

Alfred Hitchcock is credited with using this technique well in his films.  Here is how he explained the term “MacGuffin,” according to Wikipedia:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train.  One man says, “What’s that package up there 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 a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

This started me wondering.  If the MacGuffin is really nothing, as Hitchcock claimed, then is it a myth?  If the characters in the story believe it’s something, then it might be real, right?

But if it’s nothing, then here’s what I wonder:

1.  How important do you think the MacGuffin is for a mystery?  

Personally, I think it’s very important, especially for a mystery.

MacGuffins may or may not exist, but they keep the sleuth sleuthing.  For example, in mysteries where the sleuths are journalists, the story they are pursuing is often the MacGuffin.  In archeology mysteries, it’s often what’s buried in the barrow.  In the old gothics, or newer paranormal mysteries, it’s the secret in the tower (or basement).  Often the niche of a niche mystery serves as the MacGuffin, for instance the knitting circle keeps wanting to meet, but bodies keep getting in the way.  In my own Nell Letterly mysteries, it’s the missing husband who is the MacGuffin.  His being missing is what pulls Nell through her adventures.  And if he ever shows up (which he might, several books down the road), then he’ll become real and not a myth at all.  As Hitchcock said, “That’s no MacGuffin!”

And I also wonder, dear sisters and readers:

2.  What’s the MacGuffin you use in your mysteries?  Or, what’s your favorite MacGuffin that you’ve read?  

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12 thoughts on “MacGuffins and Myth”

  1. I don’t think I use one. At least not consciously. If a MacGuffin is something the sleuth hunts, all my police officer protagonist is hunting is a killer. Hmm. Have to think about this.

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  2. Pretty sure I don’t use that technique, Sue, but then I don’t write mysteries. That’s perhaps one of the differences between mystery and suspense. Certainly something to think about…

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  3. Fascinating post, Sue! Admittedly, I haven’t thought much about MacGuffins, but I’m going to now! I like the examples you mentioned, especially the journalist sleuths, and am also a fan of money as a MacGuffin– sleuths who need money to keep their business afloat–perhaps because it’s so clear-cut.

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  4. Hmmm, interesting responses! MacGuffins don’t have to be a “thing” pursued but they could be an ideal that drives the sleuth. Money is a good one, Kate!

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  5. Sue … you’re making my brain hurt so early in the morning! I’ve never really been clear about MacGuffins (I get them confused with red herrings) so you made me dig a bit deeper, since it’s probably something I should have a handle on, you know, as a mystery writer ‘n stuff. I found this explanation from TVTropes.org:

    “To determine if a thing is a MacGuffin: Check to see if it is interchangeable. For example, in a caper story the MacGuffin could be either the Mona Lisa or the Hope diamond, it makes no difference which. The rest of the story (i.e. it being stolen) would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter which it is, it is only necessary for the characters to want it. Does it do anything, and if it does, is it ever actually used in story? If the answer to both is yes, it’s a Plot Device, not a MacGuffin.”

    So, here are some MacGuffins …
    • In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you know the answer is 42, but you never know the question
    • The ring in The Lord of the Rings is a MacGuffin because it could be any object
    • the identity of Rosebud in Citizen Kane
    • the stolen money in Psycho
    • Will’s math talent in Good Will Hunting

    So, with that in mind, I don’t think I use any MacGuffins (and still may not be able to point to them right off the bat), but I am ALL OVER the red herrings.

    Whew … I deserve more coffee now. Interesting post … thanks!

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  6. Thanks for your post. Love the MacGuffin explanation! I’d never heard of that before. One of my favorite Poirot productions is “After the Funeral” with Michael Fassbender and Lucy Punch. The acting is superlative. The story has humor and the cinematography is gorgeous. In that story, the MacGuffin is a missing will, a common device by Agatha Christie but there are a few twists on the theme in this story. I’ve watched it several times. Did I mention Michael Fassbender?

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  7. Interesting post, Sue! I always think of a MacGuffin as a catalyst for a kind of misdirection–it “seems” to be what everyone is after but the story reveals itself to be about something else altogether. 🙂 Love the example of “42,” Becky!

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  8. Peg’s answer reinforces something I’ve come to believe over time: procedurals (what I write) are closer to suspense than true “mystery.” Perhaps not as twisty as true suspense, but a lot of what drives a traditional mystery or a cozy is just not there. The question is more “can the detecive/cop find out who dunnit?” than simply “whodunnit?” Not that procedurals *can’t* include MacGuffins, just that the presence of one is less needed in the story.

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  9. Sorry to make your brain hurt, Becky, but thanks for digging up all that great stuff!

    I am loving all your answers!

    Hitchcock was the king of suspense, and here’s what William L. DeAndrea says in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa about Hitchcock’s use of MacGuffins: “In Psycho, the McGuffin is the money the woman steals; in Notorious, it’s a champagne bottle full of uranium. North by Northwest featured Hitchcock’s favorite McGuffin because it was the emptiest: ‘government secrets’.”

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  10. I stumped. I have never been clear on the MacGuffin either. And like Becky, I get them confused with red herrings all the time, but a red herring has a solution, it’s merely a temporary misdirection. Maybe I should say, I understand how to make a MacGuffin work, but not how it works. Or could that be a MacGuffin in and of itself? Good post.

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  11. Great post! I love MacGuffins. I’m not even going to try to think of an answer, though. I need to use all my mental powers to get off the internet.

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