(Note: if you already know the term MacGuffin, you probably won’t learn anything new)

Do you know what a MacGuffin is?

Since Alfred Hitchcock invented this term and used it extensively I think it is the best to let him tell a story to describe the term:

Imagine two men sitting in a train in Scotland. The first one looks up and asks “What is that package over your head?”. The second answers “Well, that is a MacGuffin”. The first one asks “And what is a MacGuffin?” The other one says “Oh, it is an apparatus to catch lions in the mountains of Andirondak.” The first one says “But there are no lions in the Scottish Mountains.” The other one answers “Well, then that’s no MacGuffin. You se, a MacGuffin is nothing at all.”

This short story is from the old master himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock told it Francois Truffaut in one of several interviews which have been published in a book in 1966 named “Le cinema selon Hitchcock”.

Everything and nothing

If you watch the movies of Hitchcock you quickly learn that a MacGuffin is everything and nothing at the same time, as described in the short story. It is everything for many characters but in the end nothing for the audience.

North by Northwest is a great example of that principle. Cary Grant s mistaken for a non-existant spy, is being hunted by bad guys and learns about their true goal: getting important information out of the USA. But what are those information? What are the baddies after? Though we all would like to learn it in the movie we never really get the answer. But is that important?

The MacGuffin

Watching the movies of Hitchcock the MacGuffin can in the end be described as one thing: it is a story device for the main characters. Because if there wouldn’t be anything, the movie would lack a very important element of screenwriting: the object of desire. The invisible driving force for the story.

A MacGuffin is in other words an artificial element to give the characters something to chase, a goal. What in fact it is? It is not important. It is enough for us, the audience, to know that it is important for the characters. Nothing else matters.

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