Gizmos

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!

15 thoughts on “Gizmos

  1. Good point on the MacGuffin. Simple and straightforward explanation. We need that. Another classic example is “The Maltese Falcon”. Everyone’s chasing the falcon. But what’s important are the characters, particularly Sam Spade. The MacGuffin is simply a tool to get the characters to do their thing. Thanks for the reminder. Characters are indeed fiction.

    As for commercial success, or the lack thereof, no one can tell anyone how to be a commercial success. All the person can do is say how he or she achieved it (if they in fact actually did, lots of fakers out there). And if you follow their advice, you MIGHT be a success too.

    The one thing no purveyor of commercial success advice ever tells us is that IT TAKES MONEY TO MAKE MONEY.

    I’ve taken a couple courses by a successful indie thriller writer. Spent nearly a grand on them. They were helpful, giving info and tools to help me be a success. The problem is, through it all, the undertone is that one needs money to get started. Money for book covers, money for editors, money for advertising, money for mailing lists, money for support services, money for website maintenance and enhancement so you “look professional”. Money, money, money. However, if you don’t have the money, then what? They have no answer.

    And that’s the problem with commercial success advice: it’s the shovel salesman telling the prospector how to find gold. In the end, the prospector has to take what everyone says and go off on his own.

    But good advice is good advice, regardless if the giver is successful or not. Because the good advice, the advice that has real value, is in essence common knowledge. For the past 50 years the writing mags and the books on writing have been saying the same things over and over and over. Why? Because there is nothing new under the sun.

    So whether a commercial success or not, Jack, the advice you give is not new. But how you tell that advice is – and you tell it in a way that is easy to grasp. Glad to see you back in the saddle.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, C.W. Encouraging words are always, well, encouraging. I consider myself wildly successful, in that I have greatly enjoyed the ride. Young people for the most part don’t get that. There seems to be this widespread feeling in modern America that if it doesn’t bring in piles of cash, it isn’t worth doing.

      You can easily tell that my material here is aimed at the young writer, be he 15 or 50, young in the sense of just beginning the journey. There are many simple concepts, such as the MacGuffin, that don’t get discussed because it is assumed that everyone with an interest in writing has already learned about it. If you’re fortunate enough to have been able to afford writing courses (money again), you have. But what about the kid or the retiree who has a story to tell, but lacks the money to lay the groundwork. Is he to be condemned to thrash around wasting years as he tries to reinvent the wheel?

      Not if he knows about my humble website, and I think that’s the message that Lynda imparted to me; what I see as “doodling around” others might see as vital information, and if that’s the case, then I’m glad to offer it. And your point about needing money, discouraging as it is, is completely valid. I learned it early, and have been shouted down for expressing it by Snowflakes-in-Denial who seem to think that their work is so far beyond magnificent that it will just automatically be discovered and carry them to stardom without a dime spent on any of those marketing techniques. I don’t envy the rude awakening that’s in store for them . . .

      So, thanks for the encouragement. I try to encourage young, new voices to reach for their dreams. I always tell them that someone is going to be the next J.K. Rowling, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be them. Most of them come in thinking that writing is an easy gig that will let them avoid a “real” job (It isn’t), or that they’re going to need a tractor-trailer to carry all their money (They won’t), but I encourage them to carry on anyway, because I know that if they pursue that dream long enough, they will eventually look back and realize how much it has brought to their lives, commercial success or not.

      Thanks for stopping by, C.W., and sparking this conversation. And if you’re one of those young, new writers just beginning the journey, now you know why I always say read well, and write better! Trust me for now. Just keep writing; you’ll be ever so glad you did later!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It takes ONE fan who is waiting for your next piece of finished work, ONE comment by someone who ‘loves your writing,’ ONE unexpected referral, to keep your nose to the grindstone sometimes. Getting one of those at a low point, however random, can keep you doing what you love doing when your store of internal validation is dry.

    As for the McGuffin, if you knew what the real one was AND explained it, they’d have to kill you. I have to remember that in the current scene: it is not about Bollywood; it’s about the characters when stuck on the set of a Bollywood movie. A few details, and get out of there before I attract too much attention to what’s behind the curtain, and someone whips it aside.

    OTOH, if there’s something you want to do with your time more than writing, that’s what you should be doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, so you’re a fan of the subtle MacGuffin. There’s a lot to be said for that. As for free time and what to do with it, I’m not starting any new projects until I hear back on the book deal; don’t want to be in the middle of something and have to forget about it. Meanwhile, my Xbox is getting a workout, as well as my Kindle. Check out my book review at https://jackshideout.blogspot.com.

      Like

      1. NOTHING should be in a story that’s not essential to it (unless you’re padding like crazy and your fans let you do that). So, unless the McGuffin explanation is an essential part of the plot, theme, or characterization, it has no place in the story. Plus you look wiser.

        Happy Xboxing – looking forward to hearing about this deal.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Of course I love any Fleming references and am currently touring his full series on my blog. Looking forward to Russia with Love very much now! But your suggestion about the macguffin is poignant, too. It only matters in so far as it’s a metaphor or manifestation of the character’s passions and motives. It’s a light that reveals them to us and what they’re willing to do, and it’s their choices that actually do the plot driving. Ya know, if it’s any good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mr. Perkins, good to see you back here again! It’s been too long since I’ve featured your work here; I’ll be nipping over to your Bond series to see what you have to offer. I was a teenager (inspired by Dr. No) when I last read the whole series in order. Should be fun. And yes, the MacGuffin is something that only matters as an influencer, not as a piece of tech. Check out my reply to DatMama4 below. I’m going into a bit more detail there due to the nature of her comment. I’ll see you over at Lorna’s house in a bit.

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  4. I’ll take the blame or the credit for you offering up these bits of wisdom, haha, and thanks again for tossing me in the mix!

    I have never heard the term MacGuffin, but I’ve read about what it is. One of the authors I worked with, Stephen Fender, wrote a small instructional book called Starship Factory that detailed how to write a believable science fiction story (complete with ship specs, nautical terms, etc). One section focused on a variety of science fiction shows and books and discussed the technology of each and the degrees to which that technology was explained. Did this series give all the scientific jargon that made you think, or did that series simply have a box with blinking lights and you were expected to believe its stated purpose? Depending on the book and audience, many times, less is more.

    So now I’ve learned a new term for today! Thanks for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Lynda. No thanks necessary. I can never toss you enough, and it’s definitely credit; I wouldn’t be having this wonderful discussion if I’d just walked away.

      I don’t think you have the handle on the term MacGuffin yet. Every starship must have, for example, a way to find its way around the cosmos. Whether it is explained in detail or simply hand-waved by the fact that the pilot consults it periodically for her navigational fixes, it is vital to the ship being able to function. It is important to the crew, and if it stops working, it becomes important to the plot and thus to the reader/viewer.

      The MacGuffin, on the other hand, is never important to the reader, only to the characters. The desire to obtain, use, control, or destroy the MacGuffin drives the characters to heights and depths beyond their normal limits, and it is these characters’ interactions that are important to the reader, not the contrivance that triggers them. Am I making any sense here? There is an important difference, and I hope I’m conveying what it is. Anyway, thanks for stopping by, I always love having you over. See you again soon!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Richard, always good to see you here! I feel like I gave more information in the comments, but I’m glad you find it useful. And to think I was going to quit. Let’s all sing out with three cheers for Lynda!

      Liked by 2 people

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