Almost every film uses them, but many films don't do so very well.
MacGuffins are everywhere in cinema, from the holy grail in Indiana Jones to the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. However, not all films make good use of the power of these plot devices, namely action and superhero films. In this video essay, Sage Hyden of Just Write explores how these films oversimplify their narratives by making MacGuffins the focal point of the entire plot. Not only that, but he suggests five ways to use them so they serve your story rather than the other way around. Check out the video below:
Now, not all films use MacGuffins, but if you want to use one in your film, it'd be wise to make sure that it's serving as an effective plot device rather than a clunky, boring narrative trope. Quickly, here's a breakdown of the five tips Hyden suggested in the video for putting MacGuffins to work in your stories:
- Don't use it as a weapon of mass destruction: Why? Because then the movie is about the MacGuffin instead of your characters.
- Build mystery around the MacGuffin: If your audience knows all about your MacGuffin and has seen it multiple times on-screen, then it loses a lot of its allure.
- Use an "anti-MacGuffin": This is an interesting observation from the video. Make the MacGuffin something that not only the audience doesn't really care about, but something that your protagonist doesn't really care about either.
- Make the MacGuffin a character we like: Counteracting Hitchcock's theory on MacGuffins, try making yours something your audience cares very deeply for, like R2-D2 in Star Wars.
- Make the MacGuffin symbolic of the theme: Because duh! This is what MacGuffins are all about.
- Psycho: The envelope of money = Marion Crane's desire for a new life, which leads to her demise
- Fargo: The stolen car = Jerry Lundegaard's desire for financial independence, which leads to his demise
- The Lord of the Rings: The One Ring = The war over power in Middle Earth and Frodo's willingness to sacrifice his life to end it
In the end, films are about people—not a planet-eating bomb, not a bag of money—people. MacGuffins are great for setting your characters' adventures into motion, but once they start becoming the star of the show you begin to lose the humanity and emotion that makes films worth watching.