Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What makes a good MacGuffin?

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Reading over my thoughts from yesterday on the concept of the MacGuffin, I realize that an attentive reader might argue that I’ve mixed up cause and effect. I imply that some MacGuffins are more interesting than others, but isn’t that just because the movies surrounding them are better at persuading me to care? Isn’t MacGuffin in a good movie always more interesting, by definition, than a similar plot point in a bad one? Take the Sankara stones. Viewers have always been divided over the merits of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which I love—but there’s no denying that the magical rocks at the heart of the story are a little lame. They’re arguably less interesting, as artifacts, than the crystal skull that so many of us would like to forget. Yet yesterday I listed them, with a completely straight face, next to the Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in a list of great MacGuffins, even though I’m still not entirely sure what those stones are supposed to do. The Sankara stones, in short, were clearly grandfathered in on account of my affection for my favorite movie franchise. Which suggests that conventional wisdom may be right, and the nature of the MacGuffin doesn’t really matter.

This is probably true, to a point. But I’d argue that while the Sankara stones may not be especially interesting, the Kali cult—with its ties to Gunga Din—certainly is. And while the stones almost certainly appeared in Temple of Doom after the decision to set the film in India had already been made, once the stones were in place, the movie found some exciting ways to use them. A good MacGuffin, you see, is one that takes a story to interesting places, both for the writer and the audience. Can it generate conflict on its own? No. But at its best, it provides the sort of richness and imaginative texture that can only make a good story better. True, an audience will always respond more to character and conflict than to a MacGuffin presented out of context. But I can’t imagine an audience that wouldn’t welcome a clever MacGuffin as a sort of bonus, a plum in the pudding of the story, or relish the chance to explore it with a hero the viewer cares about. A good MacGuffin plays the same role as the locations and gadgets in a Bond movie: no replacement for story, but still great fun when properly used.

For the writer, in turn, a good MacGuffin—that is, one that seizes the author’s own imagination and interest—can open up the action of a story in surprising ways. My first novel, The Icon Thief, is built around the theft of a painting, and for purposes of the plot, it could have been just about any work of art produced by a famous artist before a certain point in history. After weeks of reading books of art history in search of a suitable work, however, I settled on an imaginary study for Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, one of the most fascinating works of art in any museum. I could have chosen a painting by Picasso or Matisse or Bonnard, or something that wasn’t a painting at all. But once I settled on Duchamp, I found myself entering an entire world of unexplored stories and ideas. If I’d chosen something else, ninety percent of the action of the novel would have unfolded in exactly the same way (although the ending probably would have been different). Yet I can’t help but think that Duchamp gave the story greater interest, texture, and emotional depth, once I learned to care about him in the way that my characters would.

That’s why I feel that choosing an arbitrary or meaningless MacGuffin is a mistake, or at least a miscalculation: it robs the author of a valuable source of narrative inspiration, which can be used to fuel the story itself. In the end, a good MacGuffin has the same quality as any useful aspect of fiction: it opens more doors than it closes. As in improv comedy, where performers are encouraged to say “Yes, and…” to every idea, the writer looks for elements that will lead him to surprising places, rather than locking him down. The humble MacGuffin, so neglected and disdained by those who should know better, can be the engine that drives the story for both the characters and the author. It can suggest action, location, atmosphere, background—everything, in short, except conflict itself. And while it’s possible that a writer will be so entranced by his MacGuffin that he neglects to create interesting characters, a tendency that one often sees in members of the Dan Brown school, that’s going to be a risk in any case. But once the crucial elements are in place, I can’t conceive of a story that wouldn’t be enriched by the web of associations evoked by a great MacGuffin.

Written by nevalalee

January 11, 2012 at 10:00 am

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