Hitchcock's MacGuffin Explained: What Are They and How Do You Use One in Your Film?
A MacGuffin is...uh...well...
Originally coined by Alfred Hitchcock, the MacGuffin is one of those things that are easy to spot but difficult to explain—like, say, the Nickelback fandom. Most understand MacGuffins as an important prop that serves the story in some capacity, but apart from that, their definition gets a little hazy, but this video essay by ScreenPrism demystifies the Hitchcockian concept once and for all, and even offers George Lucas' alternative meaning for the term for comparison.
If you want to know what a MacGuffin is, you should probably start by asking the man who created the term. Hitchcock says:
[A man] says, "Well, what is a MacGuffin?" You say, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands." Man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands." Then you say, "Then that's no MacGuffin."
Lotsa help there, Hitch. He does give a pretty good explanation when he describes it as "the thing that the characters on the screen worry about but the audience don't care." So, a MacGuffin is a plot device that acts as a catalyst to drive some of the action in the story. Examples are the stolen money that motivates all of Marion Crane's actions in Psycho, or the Heart of the Ocean in Titanic. These are known as "pure MacGuffins" because they follow Hitchcock's strict criteria: they must be incredibly important to the characters, but quite vague and meaningless to the story itself.
However, George Lucas' interpretation of the plot device is slightly different. To Lucas, a MacGuffin is still an object/prop that acts as a plot device, but it's just as important to the audience as it is to the characters. Things like the ring in The Lord of the Rings, the horcruxes in the Harry Potter series, and the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark are great examples of the modern MacGuffin.
Whether you're a MacGuffin purist or a believer of the modern MacGuffin, it's always good to give more thought to the props you use in your films. Many times new filmmakers won't be as intentional as they could be with the objects that appear on screen, but props can be used in so many pivotal ways, whether to bring some realism to your scene or add some nuance to your character.
Now that you know what a MacGuffin is, be sure to tell everybody who asks you about it the whole "trapping lions in the Scottish highlands" thing," because life isn't fair.