Writing 101: The MacGuffin, Good or Bad?

Many advice-givers, like me, will tell writers that every single word you put on the page should drive the plot forward, or otherwise give the reader important information. But that's not entirely true. When it comes to the MacGuffin and writing...well, anything goes. 

The MacGuffin remains a very controversial plot device, and some writers hate it. So today we settle the argument: is the MacGuffin good or bad?

Good Enough for Me

At this point, you may be wondering what the heck a MacGuffin is, anyway. This is a plot device that moves the story and gets characters where they need to be, but actually has nothing to do with the eventual outcome. MacGuffins usually appear, serve their purpose and promptly fade away.

You see the MacGuffin more in movies than in books, but a plot device like this can always span mediums. One of the most famous storytellers of all time is notorious for using MacGuffins in his plots. Looking for a few good examples of this technique in action? Turn to Alfred Hitchcock. 

His movies are riddled with the MacGuffin, and once you start looking you'll find it everywhere. For instance in Psycho, the missing $40,000 gets Marion Crane in position but then becomes utterly meaningless. Hitch emphasized the uselessness of the money by letting Norman Bates sink it in the lake. By the time the end of the movie comes, no one cares about that money anymore. That's a MacGuffin.

And it's a plot device that has served many noble writers very well. Sometimes, characters need to be in a certain place or meet a certain person before the rest of the story can unfold. If you use a MacGuffin to put them in that place, is it really a big deal?

Some critics will say that it is, and there are some who are very much opposed to the use of a MacGuffin. But I say what was good enough for Hitch can work for anyone (and haven't film students been trying to copy his work for decades?). When a book is well-written, a MacGuffin (or several) really doesn't matter. Readers aren't going to care as long as the story is interesting and feels complete, but you don't want to throw too many useless distractions into any narrative because that just makes it feel cluttered. 

So is the MacGuffin good or bad? Like any plot device, it's both. In the hands of a master, like Hitchcock, it works perfectly to create an intricate story. In the wrong hands, it just feels like sloppy writing. Choose your MacGuffin wisely, write it believably, and you won't go wrong.

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