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?
A very, VERY recent example, but I loved how the last line of the opening paragraph of Jennifer Crusie’s Christmas novella HOT TOY is “I need a Major MacGuffin.” (That season’s must-have toy.) Because that’s what it was, and I liked having it all up-front like that.
I’m fine with MacGuffins, though like anything else it’s possible to overdose on the plot device.
Hitchcock films are one of the gaps in my cultural education, unfortunately.
Big Hitchcock fan here. Card carrying member of the Hitchcock Society 🙂
My favorite Hitchcock is STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. It shows that Hitch doesnt need big stars to make a masterpiece although Robert Walker was very, very good and could have had a great career if he had lived longer.
The murder scene reflected in the victim’s eyeglasses still remains one of the most disturbing, yet stylistic scenes I have ever seen in a movie.
As for big bang opening scenes, I know that a lot of authors believe in it but if its not even referred to for the rest of the novel, I prefer to do without actually.
I know that there are authors who like to open with a skanky sex scene of the Hero with the Other Woman. It’s a grand tradition. I think Barbara Cartland started it and its another thing to blame Barbara Cartland on. Oh well. . .
One of my favorite books starts with the Hero shooting the Heroine in the arse. Very provocative opening but the writer is so good that she doesnt need these Big Bang Openings. The incident is totally forgotten for the rest of the book. There is not even a mention of the scar the Heroine probably ended up with on her butt.
I adore Notorious as well! So much my WIP is an homage to it set in 1909 German Empire.
But my favorite MacGuffin has to be the missing money in Charade(notice that I love Cary Grant?)
When I think about it, many romances are based around MacGuffin’s–the heroine sacrificing herself in the hero’s bed for family honor, and other often-seen plots–and gothic romances are the epitome of MacGuffins (the mysterious death of the hero’s wife, the troubled child, the family secret, etc).
I dislike MacGuffin-driven plots for the most part. I just don’t CARE about the stupid necklace, treasure, whatever. And I really don’t care for them when that’s ALL that holds the hero and heroine together. I vastly prefer character-driven stories.
I like books where people talk a lot, and say a lot of interesting things to each other. They can be plot-heavy (like Heyer’s FARO’S DAUGHTER) or plot-light (like her VENETIA) and either way I’m happy.
As for MacGuffins, I can take them or leave them. Rather like Egg McMuffins, come to think of it.
There was clearly a gap in my cultural education, because I didn’t know the term “MacGuffin” before. But now that it has been explained I can recognize the device in many books, plays, and movies.
I guess I can take it or leave it, depending on how well it is done. When it is well-enough integrated into the story it is no longer a device, but rather an important part of the story. Some of the books that work best for me use the same idea both to launch the plot and as a source of conflict between the hero and heroine.
On the other hand, that can be way overdone–as when the hero (or heroine) decides he (or she) can never be with the heroine (or hero) because of the vital importance of X, while the reader just wants them to get over it and move on. Often the conflict is resolved when the hero (or heroine) decides that X isn’t so important after all, which they could have realized on page 3.
Another vote for the swooningly romantic NOTORIOUS. If it were possible to steal the show from Cary Grant (which it isn’t) Claude Rains would have done so with his heartbreaking performance. NORTH BY NORTHWEST is pretty cool as well. And PSYCHO, well, is in a class by itself.
What’s amazing is the amount of sympathy Hitchcock gets you to feel for his villains.
One of the many Film as a Narrative Art classes I took in college was about Hitchcock. Our professor is supposedly one of the “world experts” on Hitchcock films (note, his other claim to fame was that he was THE world expert on Night of the Living Dead LOL!).
Did you all ever notice that there’s chicken in every Hitchcock film? A live one, one they eat, a picture on a wall. It’s in every damn film. LOL!
I always thought of the MacGuffin as the engine of the plot. When you get a car, who looks at the engine other than to say “yep, there’s an engine”? It’s the things that go around the engine that cause us to like the car – the seats, or the handling, or that it’s a convertible, etc. Another way – it’s the skeleton of the body of the story.
What makes the story compelling isn’t the MacGuffin, it’s what is being hung on the MacGuffin. Too many bells and whistles on a car with a too-small engine, and it won’t feel right, and the same with a car that has so much engine that it can make the car enter orbit.
Ignore the MacGuffin, it’s what it is carrying that’s important.
Ooh. Rob is wise.
But some of us knew that already. 🙂
First, alas, I’m another Hitchcock lite person. At least, I don’t think I ever seen any in my time. But at times I’ve felt like I’ve been in the Birds. 😉
MacGuffins are good too, but hey, I’m an equal opportunity plot device reader. 🙂
I guess I’m neutral on MacGuffins. As far as big bang opening scenes, I don’t like them if they’re there as a very obvious “hook” and don’t fit the rest of the story. I want to care about the characters so “exciting” first scenes may leave me cold if there’s too much action and not enough characterization.
Oh, LOVE Notorious. It always breaks my heart when he comes in and finds her at the end and realizes what he’s done (I hope that’s not a spoiler). Another Hitchcock favorite of mine is Spellbound. Ingrid Bergman again but she plays a psychiatrist at the mercy of passion for the first time and it’s, well, spellbinding.
I’ve only seen a fraction of the Hitchcock oeuvre (and who knew he was French?) but my favorites are probably Vertigo and Rope.