Some of you movie fans might know the term “MacGuffin” popularized by Alfred Hitchcock:
“A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or Maguffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is always the necklace and in spy stories it is always the papers.”
MacGuffins spur the action in romances, too (it was author Carolyn Jewel‘s post on the topic that inspired me); for example, how many women seeking their family heirlooms can you think of? The heirlooms themselves don’t matter; what matters is that she needs the hero’s help to pose as a courtesan/governess/schoolteacher in order to infiltrate the villain’s lair. Sometimes the villain ends up being the hero, so she doesn’t get his help in the first place, but you get the idea.
Or there are some spy secrets that need to be divulged to the British government to help win the war against Boney (Wellesley/Wellington being too busy arriving after 11:00 at Almack’s to help), and our h/h have to scurry across England and France to find them.
Basically, as I think I understand it, a MacGuffin catapults the everyday into the extraordinary. The best example is Janet Leigh at the beginning of Psycho; you can see she’s just stolen some money, and is on the run, but that doesn’t matter once she encounters Anthony Perkins.
My WIP opens with a man buying a woman at auction. It’s not necessarily a MacGuffin, since the reasons behind her being sold are pertinent to the story, but the fact that he bid on her (versus the farmer with the bad teeth) sets my story in motion.
Do you like big bang opening scenes? Do you care why the hero and heroine are together, or are you willing to suspend disbelief if presented with a compelling enough MacGuffin? And what’s your favorite Hitchcock movie (mine’s Notorious–a stunning Ingrid Bergman and a caddish Cary Grant? Be still, my heart!) And what’s your favorite fiction MacGuffin?