A briefcase full of money. A Persian rug. Important documents. Technically, all of these story elements answer the question: “What is a MacGuffin?” However, the term has been thrown around a lot these days and a lot of people continue to misuse it. Here, we’ll give you a primer on this age-old trope and consider some MacGuffin examples so you know precisely how to incorporate them into your own work.
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What is a MacGuffin?
Some credit the creation of the term “MacGuffin” to screenwriter Angus MacPhail, but director Alfred Hitchcock usually receives most of the recognition for coining it.
What Does a MacGuffin Do?
A MacGuffin is a plot device that either serves as a catalyst for the action in a story. It can be a goal, person, object, or idea the characters are in pursuit of, and it generally needs to be revealed in the first act. Typically, a MacGuffin will not have any identity of its own, and it can be interchangeable. For example, Pulp Fiction has the shining briefcase, but the briefcase could’ve been anything. It could have been a safe or envelope. We never even actually see what’s inside the briefcase. The MacGuffin itself is not important; it only matters in the context of moving the plot forward.
What is a MacGuffin?
- Set the plot in motion
- Give the characters something to care about
- Not usually cared about by the audience
You’ll see plenty of other articles out there incorrectly labeling specific plot devices, such as the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark or the Infinity Stones from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as MacGuffins.
While these items are certainly MacGuffin-ish, they don’t meet the classic MacGuffin definition. They align more with George Lucas' definition, which we will get to in a minute.
The Infinity Stones have specific rules attached to them. The audience cares about them a great deal. And you cannot swap out the Infinity Stones with something else and attain the same resolution. These items are better categorized as “plot coupons.”
Even without such a straightforward primer, there sometimes isn’t always an easy answer for the question, “What is a MacGuffin?” Sometimes, it requires a little digging, but we’ll do our best in this article to stick with the classic Hitchcockian MacGuffin examples. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive the MacGuffin in greater detail.
WHAT IS A MACGUFFIN?
The Microfilm in North by Northwest (1959)
What is a MacGuffin in North by Northwest? MacGuffins are ideal for thrillers, kicking off the events of the film without bearing any real importance themselves. Such is the case in Hitchcock's spectacular thriller.
Throughout the film, Roger Thornhill is chased by spies due to a case of mistaken identity. They believe Thornhill is an agent on their tail while they’re trying to smuggle microfilm containing government secrets out of the country. But, as expected, we never learn what those secrets are.
Mount Rushmore | North by Northwest
There’s a dialogue exchange in North by Northwest that perfectly encapsulates why the microfilm is a perfect MacGuffin.
Thornhill: “What does he do?”
Agent: “Let’s just say he’s an importer and exporter.”
Thornhill: “But what does he sell?”
Agent: “Oh, just government secrets.”
That’s all we learn about the microfilm. What kind of secrets are on it? Why was it so important people had to die? All of those details are inconsequential to the story. It merely exists to set the events in motion.
We aren’t meant to care about the microfilm. However, the characters care about it immensely. That’s what matters most. The MacGuffin boils down to absolutely nothing at all, and that’s what makes it useful.
The briefcase in Pulp Fiction (1994)What is a MacGuffin in Pulp Fiction? It should be fairly easy to figure out. It’s the briefcase Jules and Vincent try to give back to Marcellus Wallace.
The Briefcase Secret | Pulp Fiction
It meets the classic MacGuffin definition because it sets the plot in motion because Jules and Vincent have to go on a mission to retrieve it.
It doesn’t have any real significance on the plot. In fact, we don’t even see what’s inside the briefcase.
This has led to people speculating all sorts of things about what could possibly be inside. Theories range from the briefcase containing diamonds to Marcellus Wallace’s soul. The fact that the contents are never addressed is the entire point of the MacGuffin and why the briefcase works so well.
The movie isn’t about a quest for a briefcase. It’s an homage to cinema. It’s about deep ruminations on philosophy. Those things are what people remember fondly of Pulp Fiction. Not a briefcase that’s so inconsequential we never see its contents.
MacGuffin in Star Wars
The Death Star Plans in Star Wars (1977)
What is a MacGuffin in Star Wars? The Star Wars franchise is filled with a bunch of sort-of MacGuffins. From finding Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens to tracking down the Sith Wayfinder in The Rise of Skywalker, many so-called MacGuffins in these films are technically plot coupons. The closest we get to a genuine MacGuffin is the Death Star plans in A New Hope.
As we explained in our video above, George Lucas has adopted the term and twisted the definition so that the audience does care. The MacGuffin in Lucas' world remains important and cared about for characters and the audience.
Briefing Scene | Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
George Lucas believed in a different MacGuffin definition than Hitchcock. George Lucas thought that the audience should care about the MacGuffin as much as the characters. Under his definition, the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings and Rosebud from Citizen Kane would be considered MacGuffins.
As you look through all of the MacGuffin films, you’ll find that they all vary to a certain extent. Some stick true to the Hitchcockian definition while others add a little more weight to the object or person than they classically would.
The Death Star plans come close to attaining that classic definition. However, they do factor heavily into the third act. The resolution isn’t possible without them, but in the interest of having some flexibility, they are worth looking at as a different form of MacGuffin.
What is a MacGuffin Throughout Cinema?
Classic MacGuffin Films
MacGuffins take on various shapes and forms. If you’d like to see more MacGuffins in action, then we’d recommend checking out the following films. We’ve listed them below as well as the MacGuffin associated with each one.
- The 39 Steps (1935): The Military Secrets
- The Maltese Falcon (1941): The Maltese Falcon
- Casablanca (1942): Letters of Transit
- Notorious (1946): The Uranium Ore
- Rope (1948): The Rope
- Dial M for Murder (1954): The Spare Key to the Apartment
- 3:10 to Yuma (1957): The Train
- Vertigo (1958): The Necklace
- Psycho (1960): $40,000 in Cash
- It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963): The Giant “W”
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): The Holy Grail
- Apocalypse Now (1979): Colonel Kurtz
- Escape From New York (1981): The Tape
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982): The Genesis Device
- Romancing the Stone (1984): The Stone
- Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996): The X-5 Unit
- Titanic (1997): The Heart of the Ocean
- The Big Lebowski (1998): The Persian Rug
- Saving Private Ryan (1998): Private Ryan
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): The Green Destiny Sword
- Mission: Impossible III (2006): The Rabbit’s Foot
- The Departed (2006): The Microprocessors
- The Hangover (2009): Doug
- Avatar (2009): Unobtanium
- Atomic Blonde (2017): The List
Ultimately, the plot device you use in your own script needs to work with your own narrative needs. You may find it’s not interchangeable, or it needs greater significance than just “random suitcase.”
Use these MacGuffin examples as a jumping off point so that you can craft the most compelling plot for your own film.
What is a Plot Device?
We’ve now answered the question, “What is a MacGuffin?” However, for those of you who want to go broader with your film definitions, it’s time we examine, “What is a plot device?” From MacGuffins to a Deux ex Machina, keep reading to learn more about standard plot devices and how they can help, or hinder, your own film.