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THE MACGUFFIN: A KEY PLOT DEVICE
IN FILM STORYTELLING
The best movies have a powerful forward momentum, keeping the audience spellbound. When it's over, they are satisfied by the experience and often wonder where the time went.
The worst movies are slow, often dragging on and on. When this happens, the audience begins picking apart weaknesses in the story, acting, directing, etc. Think about it: if the audience has nothing better to do while waiting for something to happen, they are going to be critical, not list the movie's virtues.
You definitely don't want to make a movie that falls into this latter group!
There are several elements that go into making a great movie. The most important elements, of course, are an intriguing story with realistic characters. This is not enough, however. The story must be structured so that when it unfolds, it grabs your audience like a pit bull and doesn't let go until the end.
It all starts with the screenplay, of course, and there are various techniques and conventions that a good screenwriter will use to this end. A key technique is the use of "plot devices."
A plot device moves the story forward in some way. There are different types of plot devices, but one stands above all others in terms of its initial impact on the story and audience.
This plot device has a rather goofy name, called the "MacGuffin." The name was made popular by iconic director Alfred Hitchcock, but the technique goes back to the beginning of storytelling.
One of the first things you will learn in a good screenwriting course is that the hero/protagonist must have a some sort of outward motivation. This desire must be tangible because it is kick-starts the story and keeps it moving forward.
This is where the MacGuffin comes in. Simply put, the MacGuffin is the object of the protagonist's desire. This can take many forms: achievement, revenge, love, discovery, etc. The villain/antagonist is often after the same thing, or at least trying to block the protagonist from attaining it.
The classic example of a MacGuffin is "Rosebud," in Citizen Kane (1941). other great examples are the statuette in The Maltese Falcon (1941); the briefcase in Pulp Fiction (1994); the heavyweight championship in Rocky (1975); and robot BB-8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
The MacGuffin or circumstances surrounding it must be compelling to grab the audience. In other words, the audience must be able to identify with the MacGuffin on some level to spark their interest in the story.
Ironically, once the story gets underway, the importance of the MacGuffin falls into the background. The reason is that the audience is more concerned about the hero's immediate plight as each scene unfolds.
A good backstory about the MacGuffin can add depth and richness to the story; however, this is not required. Specifics about the MacGuffin are often unimportant. In fact, many great films give no detail about the MacGuffin other than the hero desperately wants it.
Another fascinating characteristic of the MacGuffin is that it may not be achieved at the end of the story or the protagonist may decide that it is ultimately unimportant. This may sound counterintuitive, but remember that the protagonist is guided by internal (emotional) forces as well as external. This may cause him or her to grow in an unexpected direction.
Every great movie will have a MacGuffin in some form. As an exercise, make a list of your favorite films and determine what it is in each movie. Although the MacGuffin has a fluid nature, the one constant is that its existence is critical to the start and forward momentum of your film. Make sure that your story has an identifiable MacGuffin, and use it as the springboard to action it is designed to be. -Lou LaVolpe
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