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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is a plot device that motivates the characters or advances the story, but the details of which are of little or no importance otherwise.

The element that distinguishes a MacGuffin from other types of plot devices is that it is not important what the object specifically is. Anything that serves as a motivation will do. The MacGuffin might even be ambiguous. Its importance is accepted by the story's characters, but it does not actually have any effect on the story. It can be generic or left open to interpretation.

The MacGuffin is common in films, especially thrillers. Commonly, though not always, the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and later declines in importance as the struggles and motivations of characters play out. Sometimes the MacGuffin is all but forgotten by the end of the film.

MacGuffins and related matters

One of the most common plot devices is the MacGuffin (a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock). A MacGuffin is an object (or character) which drives the actions of the characters, but whose actual nature is not important to the story; another object would work just as well, if the characters treated it with the same importance. Hitchcock said that "in a thriller the MacGuffin is usually 'the necklace'; in a spy story it is 'the papers'".

MacGuffins are frequently found in 'quest' fantasy stories; the magic artifact which the hero must recover in order to save his village, world or family is a MacGuffin (unless like Tolkien's Ring it's nature is a significant part of the story). The labours of Hercules might well qualify.

MacGuffins are sometimes referred to as "plot coupons" (especially if multiple ones are required) as the protagonist only needs to "collect enough plot coupons and trade them in for a denouement". The term was coined by Nick Lowe.

Another common form of plot device is the object, typically given to the protagonist shortly before, that allows them to escape from a situation that would be otherwise impossible. Nick Lowe coined the term 'plot voucher' for these, as the protagonist needs to "save the voucher and cash it in at the appropriate time". Examples of this might include the object given to a character which later deflects an otherwise fatal bullet. Most of the devices given to James Bond by Q could fall into this category. The gifts given to Perseus could also count.

Other plot devices are simply one-offs to get the protagonist to the next scene of the story. The enemy spy, who suddenly appears, defects, reveals the location of the secret headquarters and is never heard of again, would be an extreme example. Without this 'device' the hero would never find the headquarters and be unable to reach the climactic scene; however the character becomes less of a plot device if the author gives them a back-story and a plausible motivation for defecting, and makes them an interesting character in their own right.

Many video games rely hugely on plot devices; lesser games are sometimes entirely centred around characters performing arbitrary tasks in order to 'win' the game. Even relatively well-plotted games often involve the protagonist in a series of relatively unconnected and unjustified tasks.

Some other plot devices include:

  • Deathtrap — overly complicated method of killing a character, used solely to provide a means of escape
  • Deus ex machina — artificial or improbable means of resolving a story, such as having it turn out to be a dream
  • Quest — complicated search for capture or return of an object or person
  • Quibble — following the exact terms of an agreement to escape what would normally be expected
  • Red herring — a person, event or object which deflects attention from the real thing
  • Sexual tension — wherein two or more of the characters sexually long for one another, but the consummation is postponed or never occurs.

In humor-themed forms of entertainment, particularly those that break the fourth wall in pursuit of comedy, plot devices or the concept itself may be deliberately pointed out to the audience for a joke. For example, in the one-shot DC comic book Blasters, written by Peter David, one of the protagonists is shown installing a device, made by an alien race known as the "Plaht", into her spacecraft that will allow herself and her companion to locate the other protagonists, which was required to forward the plot of the story. Her companion then seemingly turned to face the reader and said, "Oh, I get it. It's a Plaht device." (In this case, the "Plaht device" would be considered a deus ex machina.) The animated series Sheep in the Big City even featured a robot character actually named "Plot Device", who apparently worked for the antagonists and served no other purpose than to advance the plot when it arrived at an apparent standstill (usually by coming up with ridiculous plans to capture Sheep).

The popular card game munchkin contains a literal "plot device" that dramatically turns the tide of a game.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "MacGuffin" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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