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MacGuffin in Narrative | What is It and How to Use

Have you ever heard of the MacGuffin? It’s a plot device that propels the story forward, captivating both the characters and the audience. It’s very important within a narrative because it serves as the driving force behind the characters’ actions and motivations.

In this article, we will explore the origin and history of this narrative device and its role in storytelling.

Understanding the concept of the MacGuffin

To fully grasp the concept, it is essential to define MacGuffin and understand its purpose within a narrative.


What is a MacGuffin?

A MacGuffin, is a storytelling device or plot element that serves as a driving force in the narrative, motivating characters to pursue a goal or engage in the plot. However, the MacGuffin itself often lacks detailed significance and is merely a means to advance the story and create conflict or intrigue.

In other words, a MacGuffin is an object, goal, or concept the characters desire or seek, driving the plot forward and motivating their actions. Its significance lies not in its inherent value but in the characters’ pursuit of it.

The MacGuffin can take various forms, from physical objects like a treasure or a weapon to intangible concepts such as knowledge or power. The key is that the characters desire or seek it, regardless of its physicality.

The role of the MacGuffin in storytelling

The MacGuffin plays a crucial role in storytelling, serving as a device to propel the plot forward and create tension and conflict. It establishes the stakes of the narrative, providing the characters with a clear objective to pursue. The MacGuffin can act as a catalyst, setting the story in motion and driving the characters’ actions and motivations.

By introducing a MacGuffin, writers can create a sense of mystery and intrigue as the audience becomes invested in discovering the MacGuffin’s true nature, purpose, or location. The pursuit of the MacGuffin can also reveal aspects of the characters’ personalities and desires as they navigate the obstacles and challenges that arise along the way.

Furthermore, the MacGuffin can serve as a unifying element within a narrative, connecting various plot threads and characters. It can create a sense of cohesion and purpose, as multiple characters or factions may converge in pursuing the MacGuffin. This convergence can lead to dramatic confrontations and unexpected alliances, adding depth and complexity to the story.

In addition to its role within the narrative, the MacGuffin can also act as a metaphor or symbol, representing larger themes or ideas. It can embody concepts such as power, greed, or the human desire for something unattainable. Using the MacGuffin as a symbolic device, writers can explore deeper meanings and messages within their narratives.

Alfred Hitchcock and the MacGuffin

The term “MacGuffin” was famously coined by the renowned filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, even if some believe that his screenwriter friend, Angus MacPhail, is the authentic father of this term.

Alfred Hitchcock’s films, such as “North by Northwest“, “Vertigo“, and “Psycho“, prominently featured the use of this narrative device. Hitchcock uses the MacGuffin not as the story’s focus but rather as a device to create tension and suspense.

Hitchcock believed the MacGuffin should be introduced early in the story to set the plot in motion. Its true nature or purpose could remain ambiguous, allowing the audience to become invested in the characters’ pursuit and the obstacles they face. By using the MacGuffin in this way, Hitchcock created suspenseful and engaging narratives that captivated audiences.

Hitchcock’s approach to the MacGuffin influenced generations of filmmakers and writers. His understanding of the power of this narrative technique in creating tension and driving the plot has become a cornerstone of storytelling in various mediums.

Other examples of famous MacGuffins in literature and film

Throughout literature and film, numerous examples of this narrative device have captured the imagination of audiences worldwide.

One of the most iconic is the One Ring from J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. This Ring of power drives the entire narrative as characters embark on epic quests to either destroy or wield its immense power. Despite being a simple gold band, the One Ring symbolizes corruption, temptation, and the struggle between good and evil.

In Dashiell Hammett‘s detective novel “The Maltese Falcon“, the eponymous falcon statue serves as the MacGuffin. The characters go to great lengths to obtain the valuable artifact, which is said to hold immeasurable wealth. However, the actual value of the falcon remains ambiguous throughout the story, highlighting the MacGuffin’s purpose of driving the plot rather than being an end in itself.

The Holy Grail, a legendary relic associated with divine power and eternal life, has been a prominent MacGuffin in various works of literature and film. From Arthurian legends to Indiana Jones’ quest in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade“, the pursuit of the Holy Grail reveals the characters’ desires and tests their faith and resolve.

Similarly, the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” functions as a MacGuffin. The characters embark on a perilous journey to find this biblical artifact, believing it possesses great power. The Ark’s true nature is revealed in the climactic scene, emphasizing the MacGuffin’s role as a catalyst for the characters’ actions and the ensuing conflict.

In Orson Welles‘ masterpiece “Citizen Kane“, the sled named Rosebud serves as the MacGuffin. This simple childhood possession represents the longing for lost innocence and ultimately drives the investigation into the enigmatic life of Charles Foster Kane. The true meaning of Rosebud remains a mystery until the film’s poignant conclusion, underscoring MacGuffin’s ability to captivate both the characters and the audience.

One can imagine a conversation between two men on a train.
One says to the other: “What’s that package you put on the luggage rack?”
The other guy says, “Oh that’s a MacGuffin.”
So the guy says, “What’s a MacGuffin?”
The other guy: “It’s a device for catching lions in the Adirondacks.”
First guy: “But there are no lions in the Adirondacks.”
So the other guy goes, “Well, then it’s not a MacGuffin!”

As you can see, a MacGuffin is nothing.

Alfred Hitchcock- interviewed by François Truffaut

How to effectively use a MacGuffin in your writing

Utilizing a MacGuffin effectively requires careful consideration and planning. Here are some tips to help you use it in your writing.

1) Make it relatable

Ensure that the MacGuffin is something that audiences can understand and relate to on some level. This will make their investment in the story and the characters’ pursuit of the MacGuffin more meaningful.

2) Give it a history or backstory

Provide the MacGuffin with a rich history or backstory, giving it depth and significance within the narrative. This can add layers of meaning and intrigue to the story.

3) Connect the MacGuffin to the characters

Ensure the MacGuffin is connected to the characters’ desires, fears, or goals. This will make their pursuit of this narrative element more meaningful and emotionally resonant.

4) Establish the stakes

Clearly define what is at stake for the characters in their pursuit of the MacGuffin. How does it affect their lives, relationships, or the world around them? This will create a sense of urgency and drive their actions and motivations.

5) Create mystery

Introduce the MacGuffin with an air of mystery and intrigue. Leave its true nature or purpose ambiguous, allowing the audience to become invested in its discovery.

6) Introduce obstacles and conflicts

Use the MacGuffin to introduce obstacles and conflicts that the characters must overcome. This will create tension and suspense within the story, keeping the audience engaged.

7) Avoid overshadowing the characters

Remember that the MacGuffin is a narrative device that drives the plot, not the story’s sole focus. Balance the attention given to it with the development of the characters and their relationships.

8) Reveal the MacGuffin’s significance

Ultimately, reveal the significance of the MacGuffin in a satisfying manner. Whether it is the resolution of a mystery or the realization of its true nature, ensure that the payoff is meaningful and resonates with the audience.

9) Use symbolism

Consider using the MacGuffin as a symbolic device, representing larger themes or ideas within the story. This can add depth and complexity to the narrative, resonating with the audience on a deeper level.

10) Create multiple layers of meaning

Infuse the MacGuffin with multiple layers of meaning, allowing it to represent different things to different characters or factions. This will create tension and conflict, driving the narrative forward.

The novel writing software of bibisco

bibisco proves to be an invaluable companion for writers delving into the intricate art of MacGuffins. With its robust functionality, bibisco empowers writers to seamlessly incorporate this narrative device into their stories through the objects’ feature.

This tool allows authors to define and manage MacGuffins as significant plot elements, ensuring coherence and depth in their narratives.

Through bibisco’s user-friendly interface, authors can explore, refine, and masterfully implement MacGuffins, enhancing the overall storytelling experience.

Object feature in bibisco. Writers can use this feature to incorporate MacGuffin in their narratives. Explore the intricacies of narrative with a focus on the Hitchcock McGuffin concept.
bibisco’s objects feature


The MacGuffin is a powerful narrative device that can enhance storytelling and captivate your audience.

Remember that this device is a means to an end, driving the plot and creating tension and conflict. It should be relatable, mysterious, and connected to the characters’ desires and goals.

Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, or short story, the MacGuffin can be a valuable tool in your storytelling arsenal. Embrace its power to add depth, intrigue, and meaning to your narratives.

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