Narrative Techniques Series: #18 MacGuffin

Narrative Techniques Series: #18 MacGuffin

Have you ever heard of the MacGuffin? MacGuffin is one of the most interesting and complex Narrative Techniques.
Indeed, you have noticed this Narrative Technique in some books or films.

We will explain in detail what it is and the characteristics of the MacGuffin Narrative Technique.

What is the Narrative Technique of MacGuffin?

It is the narrative device around which the characters’ attention is focused, although it has no definite or relevant meaning for the viewer. It is just a pretext, an element that gives the beginning to the story.

The master of thrills, Alfred Hitchcock, coined this term. Even if some believe that his screenwriter friend, Angus MacPhail, is the authentic father of this term.

What is the aim of the MacGuffin?

In many thriller novels and films appears the MacGuffin technique. It is something that appears at the beginning of the story. Also, sometimes reappear at the climax of the story. Before the end, however, the reader forgets it because it is never the essential element of the narrative.

The MacGuffin is an element capable of attracting the audience’s attention. It forces them to ask questions, thus making them an active part of the narrative.

On the other hand, a story is defined as exciting when it succeeds in provoking strong emotions in the reader or viewer.

This is what the MacGuffin is for. Its goal is to insert an element into your story with the sole purpose of provoking a reaction in the audience. In this way, it will be forced to go to the end of the story to understand why it is there.

MacGuffin: some examples

As a first example, let us take a film by Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho.
The film starts with a girl who steals an envelope with 40,000 dollars. Then, she takes it with her, fleeing the city. Several times we see images of this envelope, almost as if it were the focus of the narrative.
In reality, the envelope is completely forgotten as the scenes go by. The money is merely a narrative device.

MacGuffin allows the story to begin and then disappears from the scene without the viewer noticing.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, we see a briefcase. Everyone wants it, and this object allows the story to have a beginning, an end, and a development. However, the contents of the briefcase are never revealed.
This is one of the most striking examples of the use of MacGuffin. This technique is used to give an opening to the narrative. Spectators will never know what is in the case, and they won’t wonder about its contents.

The reason is that this object is only marginal. In fact, at the end of the film, the spectator will not remember the case but other details.

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 Fran├žois Truffaut

The novel planning software of bibisco

Why should one rely on novel planning software to write a story with all these narrative techniques to be used?
As we are seeing in our narrative techniques series, the narrative techniques are many and are hard to put into practice.
Thanks to bibisco and its novel planning software, it will be easier for you to understand which narrative technique is best suited to your narrative. You can also know how to capture the reader’s attention and develop your story.

bibisco's architecture of the novel. Narrative Techniques Series: MacGuffin
bibisco’s architecture of the novel


The narrative technique of the MacGuffin is as effective as it is difficult to use. Of all narrative techniques, it is the one that requires the most attention.

It is essential to avoid inserting an element that is then taken out of context, which puts the reader off track, disorienting them or confusing him.

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