Writing 101: What Is a MacGuffin? Learn About MacGuffins in Film, Literature, and Popular Culture

Written by MasterClass

Jun 3, 2019 • 4 min read

In every story about espionage, mystery, or suspense, there is an object or objective that motivates the characters. This plot device is called a MacGuffin. Whether it is the secret plans in a spy thriller or the jewels in a heist movie, the MacGuffin is a red herring that compels readers or audiences to dive into a story.


What Is a MacGuffin?

A MacGuffin is a plot device used in films or books that sets the characters into motion and drives the story. A MacGuffin is an object, idea, person, or goal that the characters are either in pursuit of or which serves as motivation for their actions. Usually, the MacGuffin is revealed in the first act.

Where Did the MacGuffin Originate?

The term “MacGuffin” is often credited to screenwriter Angus MacPhail, however, it is the great film director Alfred Hitchcock who popularized and mastered the use of the MacGuffin. In the 1935 film The 39 Steps, the MacGuffin is the plan for an advanced airplane engine; in The Lady Vanishes, his 1938 mystery thriller, the MacGuffin is a coded message contained in a piece of music.

A MacGuffin can be a secret instigator for the characters, but the audience does not necessarily need to care about it. In his film North by Northwest, spies chase an ad executive who they believe is harboring secret government documents. It is never revealed to the ad exec (played by Carey Grant) or to the audience what the secret documents are.

2 Different Uses For a MacGuffin

A MacGuffin is generally a physical object, but it can also be an intangible idea or force, such as love or power. Contrary to Hitchcock, filmmaker George Lucas believes that a MacGuffin should be something that the audience cares about as much as the characters. For example, the droid R2-D2 was the MacGuffin of the first Star Wars film, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope in 1977. Whether or not the audience is in the know, the MacGuffin is the linchpin of the plotline and underlines the motivation. There are two main uses of MacGuffins:

  1. As a catalyst for the action of the story. The MacGuffin is what springs the characters—either the good guys or the bad guys—into action. Someone has to be after something, and there must be overwhelming odds in the way of the goal. For example, in the 1942 film Casablanca, the stolen letters of transit are the MacGuffin. The letters are the only way out of Casablanca, a Nazi-controlled territory, and the American saloon keeper in possession of the letters is in love with the woman who wants to acquire them.
  2. A MacGuffin can reveal character traits. The object of desire is the setup that propels the characters into action, and the subsequent reactions can illustrate character depth. In Citizen Kane, the MacGuffin is Rosebud. Notorious newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane’s dying word is “Rosebud,” and the film follows a reporter trying to uncover the significance of the term. It is revealed that Rosebud was the sled that Kane was playing on the day he was taken away from his family as a child. This MacGuffin represents the loss of innocence.

4 Famous Examples of MacGuffins in Literature

MacGuffins can be traced back to Greek epics and Medieval literature. The use of MacGuffins in literature and film predates the term—it’s the fountain of youth, the sacred relic, and even a magical sword of myths and legends. For example, the Holy Grail is represented in various stories, from Arthurian legend to comedies, as an object with miraculous powers and the secret to eternal youth. Here are some other examples of MacGuffins in literature:

  1. Perhaps the most famous example of a MacGuffin is the statuette of a falcon in the 1929 detective novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. A private investigator is in search of the statuette, which is made of gold and precious jewels covered by black enamel.
  2. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells the prince that he was murdered by his brother Claudius. This encounter is the MacGuffin and motivates Hamlet’s actions in the play.
  3. In Homer’s epic poem Iliad, the MacGuffin is Helen of Troy’s beauty. After Trojan prince Paris abducts Helen, the Greeks responded by posing an attack on Troy, launching the Trojan Wars.
  4. The Sorcerer’s Stone in the first book of the Harry Potter series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone—promises to grant immortality and turn any metal into gold. The villain Voldemort orchestrates a plot to steal the stone, and Harry Potter must find a way to get to the stone first before it is used for ill will.

5 Famous Example of MacGuffins in Pop Culture

Thrillers, spy stories, and heist films are rife with MacGuffins. From secret plans to coveted prizes, here are some examples of MacGuffins in pop culture:

  1. In the 1994 crime film Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino, two hitmen are tasked with retrieving a briefcase containing a mysterious object. The object is never revealed to the audience.
  2. A mysterious object referred to as “The Rabbit’s Foot” serves as the MacGuffin of Mission Impossible 3. An employee of an espionage agency travels to the Vatican to capture an arms dealer who is in pursuit of The Rabbit’s Foot, which is later revealed as a biohazard.
  3. In The Big Lebowski, a 1998 crime comedy, the MacGuffin is a Persian rug which humorously leads to mistaken identities and theft.
  4. The One Ring in The Lord of the Rings films serves as a central plot element of the series. The story follows the characters’ journey trying to destroy the magical ring.
  5. In the war drama Saving Private Ryan, the MacGuffin isn’t an object—it’s a character. Soldiers go behind enemy lines in search of Private Ryan, whose three brothers were killed in combat.

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