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  1. ScaryMonster

    ScaryMonster Active Member

    Jan 10, 2011
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    MacGuffin’s and Plot Coupons, what exactly are they?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by ScaryMonster, Nov 7, 2011.

    Since I’m currently taking a hiatus from writing my larger work to finish a short story that hinges on the use of a “McGuffin as a plot devise. I thought I’d post something about this “Thing,” and its use in writing.

    Almost everyone who has written fiction has used a McGuffin at one time or another, but just what exactly is it? And what does it do. (Rhetorical question)

    There are differing interpretations, the dictionary definition says it’s "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction.” I would guess its something like the Holy Grail in “Perceval, le Conte du Graal)” or the One Ring in “The Lord of the Rings.”
    This seems to fit with the Hitchcockian explanation of it:

    “The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularise both the term ‘MacGuffin’ and the technique, with his 1935 film. The 39 Steps, an early example of the concept. Hitchcock explained the term ‘MacGuffin’ in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: We have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories, it is almost always the necklace, and in spy stories, it is almost always the papers"

    Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term "MacGuffin" with this story:

    It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, ‘What's that package up there in the baggage rack?’ And the other answers ‘Oh, that's a McGuffin.’ The first one asks ‘What's a McGuffin?’ ‘Well’, the other man says, ‘It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’ The first man says ‘But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,’ and the other one answers ‘Well then you can see how well my McGuffin works!’ Therefore, in effect, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

    Hitchcock related this anecdote in a television interview for Richard Schickel's documentary ‘The Men Who Made the Movies’ and for ‘Dick Cavett's’ interview. Hitchcock's verbal delivery made it clear that the second man has thought up the MacGuffin explanation as a roundabout method of telling the first man to mind his own business. According to author Ken Mogg, screenwriter Angus MacPhail, a friend of Hitchcock, may have originally coined the term.” From Wiki

    So does a McGuffin necessarily have to be mysterious? As to its functioning, George Lucas claimed that in Star Wars, “R2D2” was the plots McGuffin. Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but as to what that object specifically is, he declared, "The audience doesn’t really care.”

    Lucas, on the other hand, believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that "the audience should care about it almost as much as the duelling heroes and villains on-screen. But the issue I have with his take on this is that “The Force” was a huge traditional McGuffin. Mysterious and compelling but did we really care about it like the character “R2D2?”
    And when Lucas attempted to explain something of its workings in “The Phantom Menace” I believe he actually weakened the idea of “The Force” as a McGuffin.

    Multiple MacGuffins derisively referred to as “Plot Coupons” and are generally a sign of lazy writing. The best example I can think of is the Alexi Sayle’s sketch which is a parody of fantasy story writing. I posted in my Blog here, its called, “Archaic Grammar.”
    In this one short skit, the McGuffins listed are:

    1. The accursed ghouls of Gral.
    2. Wispy forest thing.
    3. The dark light.
    4. Boots of cat skin.
    5. The land of Mythtoad.
    Maybe I even missed some.

    All these things remain unexplained and mysterious in this skit, and by piling one strange McGuffin upon another without any explanation, the writer attempts to paint a world that’s supposedly fearful and mysterious. But it comes off as being ridiculous because it’s meant to be a parody. But there are a lot of people who write like this, in earnest.

    I guess it’s a matter of degree you only need to hint enough to keep the McGuffin convincing but not too much, or it becomes a joke.
  2. minstrel

    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

    Jul 11, 2010
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    Near Los Angeles
    I always thought of a McGuffin as an thing in the story that's very important to everybody in the story, but which doesn't matter to the reader. The movie Ronin has a great example. Robert De Niro and his crew are trying to recover a suitcase from some bad guys who are trying very hard to protect it. Whatever is in the case is VERY IMPORTANT, but the audience never gets to know what it is. It's just the thing that's being fought over, and that's all that matters. Who cares what's in the case? It's watching the characters fighting over it that's entertaining.
  3. ScaryMonster

    ScaryMonster Active Member

    Jan 10, 2011
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    Guffin’s seem to be particularly prevalent in screen writing, just off the top of my head I came up with 13 of them.

    1. The Maltese Falcon = The Statue

    2. Pulp Fiction = The Case (Which as stolen from the next example)

    3. Kiss Me Deadly = The Glowing Briefcase

    4. The Holy Grail = The Cup

    5. Star Wars = The Death Star Plans hidden in R2D2

    6. Raiders of the Lost Ark = The Ark of the Covenant

    7. Lord of the Rings = The One Ring

    8. Citizen Kane = Rosebud.

    9. Evil Deads, Army of Darkness = The Necronomicon.

    10. Reservoir Dogs = The Diamonds.

    11. The Big Lebowski = The Ransom.

    12. The 39 Steps = The Military Secrets.

    13. Harry Potter Series = Horcruxes

    In fact, the whole Harry Potter Series was rife with Plot Coupons, does that demonstrate lazy writing?
    Is it a good commercial formula to rip off Dickensian character stereotypes and fill your book with magical knickknack's?
    Maybe JKR should change her books titles to make them more accurate, perhaps “Harry Potter has an Existential Crisis with a Mysterious Prop.” Would be a better description.

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