A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction".[1] The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. Common examples are money, victory, glory, survival, a source of power, a potential threat, or it may simply be something entirely unexplained.

The MacGuffin is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and then declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. It may come back into play at the climax of the story, but sometimes the MacGuffin is actually forgotten by the end of the film. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes—somewhat derisively—referred to as plot coupons.[2][3]

The term is also used by a game development studio as a reference to a design object which forces interactivity on to a narrative.[4]


History and use

Objects that serve the plot function of MacGuffins have had long use in storytelling, for example, the Sampo in a segment of the Finnish epic Kalevala. However the specific term MacGuffin appears to be limited to recent use in film making.

Alfred Hitchcock

The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term "MacGuffin" and the technique, with his 1935 film The 39 Steps, an early example of the concept.[5] 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 most always the papers".[6]

Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock illustrated the term "MacGuffin" with this story:[7]

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.

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.[8]

George Lucas

On the commentary soundtrack to the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars, writer and director George Lucas describes R2-D2 as "the main driving force of the movie ... what you say in the movie business is the MacGuffin ... the object of everybody's search".[9] In TV interviews, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but, as to what that object specifically is, he declared, "the audience don't care".[10] 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 dueling heroes and villains on-screen".[11]

Filmmakers’ jokes

The term lent itself to several "in" jokes: in Mel Brooks's film High Anxiety, which parodies many Hitchcock films, a minor plot point is advanced by a mysterious phone call from a "Mr. MacGuffin".

In the movie Léon (aka The Professional), when Léon and Mathilda check into the hotel, Mathilda tells Léon she's filling the form out with "the name of a girl in my class who makes me sick." Following with "If things get hot, she'll take the heat". Later in the movie we hear the Hotel manager banging on the hotel room door exclaiming "Mr. MacGuffin?!"

In the TV show Due South during the episode Chicago Holiday, the MacGuffin is a matchbook that makes its way around the episode going from character to character. The hotel maid in this episode has the name of Mrs. McGuffin and earlier in the episode, a mall security guard's name is Niffug C.M.. This is an ananym of the hotel maid's surname, McGuffin. Also, the basement janitor in the hotel in part 1 is named Mac Guff.


Examples in film include the meaning of rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941),[12] the titular Maltese Falcon, the Rabbit's Foot in Mission: Impossible III (2006),[13] the briefcases in Pulp Fiction and Ronin, and the mineral unobtainium in Avatar (2009).[14]

Examples in television include the Rambaldi device in Alias,[15] the "orb" in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.,[16] and Krieger Waves in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Matter of Perspective".[17][18][19]

Examples in literature include the television set in Wu Ming's novel 54[20][21] and the container in William Gibson's Spook Country.[22]

In the game Kingdom of Loathing the player must go through a series of sub-quests to obtain the "Holy MacGuffin". It is never really explained what this MacGuffin is, only that "You're not really sure what this is, but it seems really, really important. Better get it to the Council right away."

In discussing the critical failure of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg said, "I sympathize with people who didn't like the MacGuffin (the crystal skull) because I never liked the MacGuffin."[23]

See also


  1. ^ MacGuffin, Princeton University, WordNet 3.0
  2. ^ Lowe, Nick (July 1986). "The Well-Tempered Plot Device". Ansible (Berkshire, England) (46). ISSN 0265-9816. 
  3. ^ Sterling, Bruce. "Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops". Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. 
  4. ^ "About". Retrieved 2010-07-06. 
  5. ^ Marshall Deutelbaum, Leland A. Poague (2009) A Hitchcock reader p.114. John Wiley and Sons.
  6. ^ According to the Oxford English Dictionary.
  7. ^ Gottlieb, Sidney (2002). Framing Hitchcock: Selected essays from the Hitchcock annual. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. p. 48. ISBN 0-8143-3061-4. 
  8. ^ Frequently asked questions on Hitchcock
  9. ^ Star Wars (1977) Region 2 DVD release (2004). Audio commentary, 00:14:44 - 00:15:00.
  10. ^ "The 39 Steps - Film (Movie) Plot and Review". Retrieved 2010-07-06. 
  11. ^ Keys to the Kingdom, a February 2008 Vanity Fair article
  12. ^ Greatest Films: Citizen Kane (1941)
  13. ^ What the MacGuffin? Abrams Loses Way in Mission
  14. ^ The Quietus List of Macguffins
  15. ^ Editorial Review of "Alias - The Complete First Season" at
  16. ^ Review of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. at
  17. ^ A Matter of Perspective (1990) Region 1 DVD release (2002). Season 3, Disk 4.
  18. ^ "The Incredible But True Story Of Krieger Waves". November 5, 2005. 
  19. ^ "Krieger wave". May 15, 2008. 
  20. ^ The Independent, A Week in Books: An ingenious comedy-thriller, packed with clever gags by Boyd Tonkin, 24 June 2005
  21. ^ The Independent, 54 By Wu Ming reviewed by David Isaacson, 11 July 2005
  22. ^ The Hartford Advocate, Hartford Advocate reviews 'Spook Country'
  23. ^

Further reading

  • Francois Truffaut. Hitchcock
  • Slavoj Zizek. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock)
  • Slavoj Zizek. The Sublime Object of Ideology

External links

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