Friday Exercise: The MacGuffin

Posted on 26 June 2009

A MacGuffin is an object that drives the plot forward and is the focus of suspense. Someone or many people often are quite desirous of this object, or have some intense emotional connection with it, and find their actions concerning that object somehow frustrated. The greater people’s desire for the object and the greater lengths to which they will go in regards to the object, the more engagement, tension, and suspense are built up in the audience.

This storytelling technique has been around for a very long time. Alfred Hitchcock popularised the term “MacGuffin” to describe it. In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock relates this story as the origins of the term:

“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 that’s no McGuffin!’ So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

MacGuffin’s are invaluable to comic storytelling. Here is a tool which will help to work an audience up to the release that comes with  a punchline. The more you can milk that MacGuffin, the bigger the laugh you are likely to get. The difference between a dramatic MacGuffin and a comedic MacGuffin has to do with the contrast between how much someone desires the MacGuffin and of how much genuine value it holds.  For instance some elderly woman may be into collecting bubble-gum wrappers. Someone has just unwrapped a piece of gum and casually dropped the wrapper. The woman casts aside her walking frame, leaps over a table, beats off ninjas, then throws herself into a dive in order to catch the wrapper before it hits the ground. Comedy gold.

I have a speculative fiction writing group I organise. This last Saturday I gave them the below exercise to do with MacGuffins. So yes, I’m cheating and reusing stuff this week. However, in their case they tried in part to create dramatic situations with my suggestions, which was much harder than your trying to create comedic situations. Your exercise is to write a humorous story based on the suggested MacGuffins within a twenty minute time limit.

  • You are part of a delegation to open peaceful relations with another race of sapient beings. The ambassador plans on giving something to the leader of this people as a gesture of goodwill. You find out that the object will probably deeply insult this people.
  • You have “The Icon of Kimendo”. This little figurine has mystical powers that sucks all ethereal beings into it under certain circumstances. The problem is that you want to use it to get rid of the bad ghost in the castle, but not the good ghost.
  • You have a fairy locked in your wardrobe. The owner of the house in which you are living would toss you into  the street if she found out, but you want to keep it, show your friends, maybe find some way to make money from it.
  • One of the technicians on your spaceship (the cute one) has accidentally put the wrong crystal in the navigation unit. It is inspection day and the inspector is a tough one prone to firing people. If he pushes the wrong button, the navigation unit could explode setting the ship adrift and losing lots of jobs. You are in the airshafts trying to fix the situation while he is inspecting.
  • A very rich family hold the last bottles of a particular wine that through serendipitous circumstances has all the right ingredients to cure lycanthropy. You have worked hard to hold the right jobs and make the right connections in order to get close to this family. Tonight they are going to share a bottle of this wine. This is also the night you will turn into a werewolf.
  • You’re a guy and a unicorn has just decided you are its best buddy. You are about to go to a dance and you don’t want your friends or the girl to know you are a virgin.

Peace and kindness,


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