Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion – that’s Plot.”
~ LEIGH BRACKETT
Many of you will have heard by now that Lynda Dietz has convinced me that this piddling little blog I run here has value, so once again, the exact opposite of what I announced would happen is happening. I hope someone finds this interesting . . .
This week I’m going to discuss the Gizmo that Drives the Story, often called the MacGuffin, a term coined by Angus McPhail and popularized by Alfred Hitchcock. It is, in its simplest terms, a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin is nearly ubiquitous in any sort of adventure fiction, and even in genres like romance, one of the two primary characters can be considered the MacGuffin that drives the actions of the other. We all need them; we all use them. What do we do with them?
In my experience, where many new writers fall afoul of the MacGuffin comes from ignoring that phrase, “with little or no narrative explanation.” They expend page after page, whole chapters sometimes, explaining what the MacGuffin is, how it works, and why its capture or defense is vital to the fate of The World As We Know It. See, there is always this temptation to get lazy, to let the story of the MacGuffin carry the narrative at the expense of character development. No! Bad writer!
As an author, this is a complete waste of your time as well as physical resources if you’re expending ink on paper, and can even serve to drive your readers away; if they wanted to read a science textbook, they wouldn’t have chosen your thriller. To study and make the point, let’s examine a prime example of the MacGuffin done right: Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel From Russia With Love. The film is very close to the novel as adaptations go, so whichever you’ve experienced will be fine.
The MacGuffin in this story is a Soviet Spektor (novel) or Lektor (film) coding machine much coveted by western intelligence for whom 007 works. The villains conscript a beautiful cryptography clerk, Tatiana Romanov, to contact MI6 with a fable about how she wants to defect, but will only attempt it if superspy 007 comes to collect her, and as a sweetener, she will bring “her” code machine, the Lektor. MI6 smells a rat, but of course, the Lektor is too big a prize to ignore, and 007 is duly bundled off to Istanbul to make the pickup. Waiting to off him is a whole operation prominently including dirty-deed organizer Colonel Rosa Klebb and super-assassin Donald “Red” Grant. Much merriment ensues.
But our purpose here is the study of the MacGuffin, and the main thing to note here is that once the Lektor is mentioned and defined, it is rarely brought up again. We’re told that it’s an unbreakable coding machine, the west wants it, and the rest of the story concerns itself with 007’s efforts to secure it and his interactions with those using it for bait in order to assassinate him. We know it’s what he’s after, we see it briefly when he opens its small case to verify that that’s really what’s inside, and we see the case a couple more times during their flight from the assassins, but it never becomes the focus of the narrative.
The story of From Russia With Love is the interactions between Bond, Romanov, Klebb, and Grant, plus a few incidental characters. It is not about the Lektor; that could have been any desirable state secret, a list of agents, or the outline of an operation. It isn’t about the Orient Express, where the climactic fight between Bond and Grant takes place. That could have been set on a Caribbean island or a space station without changing much of anything; some later films were set in just those places. No, the story of From Russia With Love, as it is with any quality work of fiction, is the story of how the characters go about pursuing their goals, and the friction between them that this causes. I can’t tell you how to find great commercial success; that has eluded me for almost fifty years, but if you want your work to be well-regarded by however many readers you have, lock this into your memory, and never lose sight of it:
Characters are fiction.
Make that your focus, and you’ll never go too far wrong.
And those are my thoughts on MacGuffins. I hope someone found this useful, or at least entertaining. I found it enjoyable, and I offer my thanks to Lynda once again for bringing me back to this. Enjoy, comment, question, and be back here Thursday for my latest roundup of Other Voices. See you then!