Episode 70 - You Only Want Me for My MacGuffin
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Episode Transcript (by Rekka)

[Upbeat Ukulele Intro Music]
Rekka: This is We Make Books, a podcast about writing publishing and everything in between. Rekka is a published Science Fiction and Fantasy author, and Kaelyn is a professional genre fiction editor. Together, they'll tackle the things you never knew you never knew about getting a book from concept to finished product, with explanations, examples, and a lot of laughter. Get your moleskin notebook ready. It's time for We Make Books.

Kaelyn: I love MacGuffins.

R: Or weenies. I think we should start calling them "weenies" again.

K: Go back to the original name. Yeah, it's funny because like, I think MacGuffin has like a negative connotation around it and I love it as a plot device where it's just like, there's this thing. And everyone wants it. In some cases we don't even really know what it does. There's like oh, the suitcase from pulp fiction. That's a great MacGuffin.

R: That was going to be my example.

K: In one of the Mission: Impossible movies, the one with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, you know, they're trying to get this, this thing from this guy. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman is this like the most terrifying crime lord in the world. And he can't get this thing. We literally never find out what it does, why they need to keep it out of his hands so badly and, and have it for themselves. But yeah we kinda conceived of this episode is talking about MacGuffin versus plot devices. So, let's be clear. All MacGuffins are plot devices, not all plot devices are MacGuffins. So as I always like to do a, you know, a little bit of history here, MacGuffin the terms often chalked up as being coined by, Alfred Hitchcock and his friend and screenwriter, MacPhail, but it actually goes back quite a bit before that there was an actress in the 1920s named of Pearl White, which I can only assume as a stage name.

R: Her movies brought to you by Colgate.

K: I genuinely hope that's a stage name. But she was in a lot of spy movies or action movies where everyone was chasing after something. And she was in so many of them that she started calling the items in question "weenies" because it didn't matter. And the, it was almost getting a little formulaic in her movies that it could have been, you know, like a roll of film, a document, a, a key that opens a certain, you know, safe or something. It really didn't matter what they were. It was just, you know, these suspense action inspired movies, everyone trying to chase down the same object.

R: The reason that it doesn't matter is because no one actually ever really uses it. You just want to have it, right?

K: Yeah. Yeah. It's frequently MacGuffin-related plots are resolved by "the real treasure was the friends we made along the way," which is one of the more infuriating endings.

R: I like friends.

K: Friends are great. Yeah. But like, okay. So I was going to get to this, to this later and the thing that, like one of my favorite examples of a MacGuffin that becomes un-MacGuffinned and is National Treasure That film is very rare in that they actually find and maintain hold of the treasure in the end of it, think of like, you know, like the Goonies or Pirates of the Caribbean, like Treasure Planet, they all find the treasure, but they don't really actually get to keep any of it. National Treasure really upended that by, by letting those characters not only find it, but then we find out how much money they got for it.

R: And Disney's Atlantis. They did have the treasure at the end, too.

K: That's true.

R: They didn't tell anyone they had treasure. They just suddenly were all very wealthy.

K: Yes, it was very good. So yeah, MacGuffins are by definition, it's a functionally meaningless interchangeable object whose only purpose is to drive the plot. The function of a MacGuffin is that there are characters or multiple groups of characters that want it, and they're all competing or outwitting or racing to get this object.

R: The method by which it drives the plot. It creates the tension between different parties.

K: Yes, exactly. Or it could be, you know, something like a treasure hunt where, you know, the MacGuffin is the treasure. So we know what its function is. It's going to make somebody rich, but it really is just there as an object to be desired. One of the fun things I learned while doing, you know, putting some notes together, researching this is it's generally accepted that one of the first MacGuffin in commonly accepted MacGuffin and literature was the holy grail, which is very common plot device for Arthurian legend. And then, you know, later tales where this is also treasure. Yes. It had religious significance, but therefore making it a worthwhile pursuit for these holy and sanctified nights. But yeah, it was functionally a MacGuffin because once you get the holy grail, what do you do with it? Well, it depends. If you're in an Indiana Jones movie or not, I know. The Arthurian knights were not not planning to make themselves immortal by that. They were planning to just get it and put it somewhere to look at it and go, it's the holy grail. Yay. So MacGuffins, like I said, it's got a negative connotation around it, I believe. And I do think that is that's very unfair. It's often treated like, well, it's just something that they had to put in there to get the characters, to act, to do something. And it's like, well, yeah, but that's a book.

R: Yeah. You need a plot.

K: That's how plot devices work. I think where MacGuffins get a bad rep so to speak is because they're meaningless and interchangeable. There are a lot of books, movies, TV shows where the MacGuffin is interchangeable. How many, you know, heist films have you watched where it's like, we need to get this thing in order to, you know, make this next step. And then it turns out that it's like, oh no, wait, things have changed. We need get this other thing. It doesn't have to be the same MacGuffin through the course of the story. They can change based on, you know, how the plot's moving or circumstances or the needs or wants of the characters. As I mentioned before, all MacGuffin are plot devices, not all plot devices are a MacGuffin. So that was kind of, you know, we wanted to talk a little bit about what a MacGuffin is and what it isn't thereby, what is a plot device and what its function is.

K: Plot devices are basically a technique and narrative use to move the plot forward. It can be anything from, you know, characters and their actions to objects, to gifts of mysterious origins that we're not quite sure about. Now. It can be relationship, plot devices cover a lot of different things. One of them is MacGuffin. So, you know, saying like, well saying this object, it's just a plot device. Well, it might not be just a plot device. It might be a MacGuffin, but plot devices can be other things. Chekov's gun is of course a plot device. The Chekov's gun rule is if you're going to have a gun on the stage in the first act of a play, somebody needs to fire it in the third act of a play because otherwise it's just, you know, a decoration at that point. I don't like that.

R: I don't think it's just that it's a decoration it's that your audience is going to wonder about it and that you don't want to distract or disappoint.

K: If there's a play going on and there's a gun hanging on the wall and it's set in a hunting lodge that seems fairly normal.

R: But for example, if I see somebody in a movie, pick a rifle out of their nightstand and tuck it into their belt, I know that, you know, something's going to escalate.

K: Yeah, exactly. Or at least we're, we should be reading into that. Character is planning for there to be some kind of a conflict or a scenario in which they may need to defend themselves. Right. But let's talk a little bit about pot devices. As I mentioned, they're things that are intended to move the plot along. There's an endless list of things that are plot devices. And as I said, these can be anything from relationships. Like a love triangle is a frequently as plot device. Definitely one of my least favorites. First of all, they're very rarely actually triangles. They're more like two lines converging on a single point in order for there to be a triangle, all three people involved need to be having—

R: So is the object of the other two's interest a MacGuffin?

K: Could be, I've talked endlessly about what a ridiculous character Bella from Twilight is. And I mean, she's, she's borderline a MacGuffin. Like really, you know what, God, that's a really good thought experiment. I'm going to have to like find some kind of a summary now and go, go through this and see if like Bella is actually a MacGuffin.

R: If the character themself doesn't have any agency, like the damsel in distress that you don't even see until you storm the castle in the third act.

K: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And we'll get to things that can be MacGuffin that you might not think would be a MacGuffin. So one of them that I actually stumbled across that I didn't think about as a plot device is the Deus ex Machina. So Deus ex Machina it's was a commonly used plot device, especially in Greek comedies and tragedies, primarily tragedies, I suppose where an improbable event is used to resolve everything and bring the story to a conclusion, usually a happy conclusion, fun fact about the Deus ex Machina, of course, you know, it's the Latin for "God in the machine." it was because that's because in a lot of great tragedies and plays, they'd have this mechanism by which an actor portraying a God was lowered into the stage, does god things, you know, changes whatever's happening, and then that's the end of the story. So God in the machine was what was coined for that. This one I will say generally is something that writers are encouraged to avoid. It's it's not great storytelling. Like if, you know, you're lining up for the big conflict and everyone's squared off and waiting to see what happens. And then an earthquake happens and kills everyone...

R: Yeah. You know, the earthquake, wasn't something that had been foreshadowed or anything like that. It's kinda like the "Oh, and I woke up and it was all a dream."

K: I always say like the T-Rex at the end of the first Jurassic Park movie.

R: Just shows up and chomps.

K: Just shows up and is like "Raptors! Mmm!"

R: A lot of people were pretty satisfied by the T-Rex if, if it had been T-Rexes in the tragedies, we could've had a whole new view of the Deus ex Machina.

K: Yeah. It was a, it was a very satisfying ending and it was certainly a "whoa, holy crap. Like, yeah, I forgot. There's also huge dinosaurs running around here. Right."

R: And again, so like that was foreshadowed. It was Chekov's T-Rex for your T-Rex Machina.

K: It is a little bit of an ex Machina because first of all, the last time we saw the T-Rex, it was very far from the visitor center. And also no one can explain to me how it got in there. So, but you know. It's fine.

R: Hey, look. If you really want to nitpick Jurassic Park, let's just talk about how the Jeep fell into the T-Rex enclosure. They did not get to a fence. And yet there were brachiosaurs. Why were they in the T-Rex enclosure?

K: I thought they were outside the T-Rex enclosure along a cliff.

R: I didn't see a fence.

K: The geography of this is, is definitely slightly slightly suspect. But also a plot device, the T-Rex in this is, you know, serving as, as a plot device, in that it is forcing the characters to act and make decisions really. We all know that if they just sat quietly in the cars, the movie would have been a lot different.

R: But the MacGuffin of Jurassic Park would be the dinosaur DNA.

K: Yes. in one aspect of the plot, definitely, the Nedry plot. I would argue that that is much more relevant to everything, but like, it is a weird little side plot where this chain of events gets kicked off because of yes, the dinosaur DNA, which is not meaningful for the story. Is it interchangeable? I don't know. I would say no on that, but it definitely, for that particular part of the plot serves as a MacGuffin.

K: One of the examples I always use that, you know, people point to and say is a MacGuffin, but is absolutely not, is the one ring from Lord of the Rings. It's not an interchangeable object there, isn't another, you know, another thing that they could go take and throw into this volcano, the only reason they're going to throw in this ring into Mount Doom is because it has to be that specific ring. And it has to be thrown into Mount Doom. We lose the whole story of the one ring corrupting and torturing everybody that's holding it. You know, we lose the the character development that comes from the people who have to carry this ring and what it does to them. So that's one we're, you know, I see like people saying like, oh yeah, and the one ring, the MacGuffin. Like it's not, that is not a MacGuffin. It is a plot device, but it is not a MacGuffin.

R: Right. It's an object that everybody wants, but it is a carefully crafted object in terms of the story that is the foundation of the story itself.

K: Yeah. The one ring, I would say, even goes so far as to serve as a theme in that story, essentially. One of my favorite plot devices is a plot coupons. Rekka also loves these.

R: Like you need the blue key card and then come back with the blue key card. And then, you know, you can open this blue locked door. The idea that you need this thing before the story can go any further and it has to be this thing. But that thing is not going to come around later. It's not like that key will open another door later. It will open this one door that we need to progress, but there's probably going to be another door later.

K: And again, this is not a MacGuffin because it's not interchangeable. You need that specific key. The other way to sort of integrate plot coupons into your story is there's a certain number of objects you need to collect in order to get something else. My favorite one of these is Dragon Ball. You want to summon the dragon. I believe his name was Shen. You have to collect all seven dragon balls to do that. So the story is being driven by the quest to find all of these, some in the dragon and then summoning the dragon from there typically drives the plot forward even more. It's very rarely goes the way you want it to when you're collecting, collecting things for a larger thing. It's not like a carnival where you get enough tickets, you get the giant teddy bear and then you go home. That teddy bear might kill you. Yeah. Similarly to, to plot coupons is a plot voucher which is something that a character is given or, you know, picks up on a whim or just, you know, is particularly entranced by and goes, I'm going to take this object. And then it turns out to be incredibly useful or life-saving, or exactly the thing that they needed or didn't realize the value of it. Something like that.

R: This is frequently a Star Trek: The Next Generation thing where Wesley is working on this school project and that school project saves the planet later when he connects it to the war coils.

K: Yeah. There you go. Yeah. it's a very common thing in especially fantasy because you know, it's this there's a lot of concepts of hidden and mysterious objects where something that you have, you don't realize that's what it is the whole time you have it. And then suddenly it's magically revealed at the end. One of my favorites. I don't know if anyone listening to this or Rekka, I feel like you may have read like the, you know, the subsequent Wizard of Oz books.

R: I have not read the sequels.

K: Oh really? Okay. Yeah, and um

R: I always meant to, but I just never got around to it.

K: They're good. They're good. I got, I got really into them and I believe it's, is it in the second book? I can't remember. And one of them were Dorothy returns to Oz and they're trying to, you know, so Oz is now without a leader and she goes off on this whole quest with this boy that she finds who he's an orphan. And he doesn't have a lot of memories from when he was younger and they go in this whole thing and they're trying

R: Well that sounds like a missing king.

K: Better. It's a missing queen. Because they finally turn— their whole thing is they're trying to track down this witch who may know where the heir Ozma is. And they finally confront her and she tearfully breaks down and points to the boy and says, "I turned her into a boy." Dorothy's had the queen with her the whole time and didn't realize it. So yeah, that's a, you know, that's a good, I'm not sure that really fits the plot voucher, but I'm going to say that it does, because Dorothy does go out of her way to have this boy accompany her. I think the boy's name is Pip because of course it would be. You know, somebody who on a whim picks up like a bulletproof vest or has given a bullet professed and then get shot later. Or you know, there's always like the little meek character that they give like a knife or a gun to, and say here, hold this just in case.

K: And then the main character is getting strangled to death and they use it. Those are plot vouchers. Another one— and then I promise I'll stop going through plot devices here, but I, I always enjoy this—is a good red herring. Very common in murder mysteries and thriller stories and even a spy novels. You know, this is trying to divert the audience of the reader's attention away from something and draw it to something else. You know, I mentioned murder mystery. So like this would be like, you know, the whole family's gathered for dinner and the grandmother suddenly dies. And the doctor of the family declare she's been poisoned, and who would have the motive for doing this? And while you, the reader trying to sort through all of this, there becomes a character who it's to you very clear has the best motives, the best opportunity and everything. But in the case of that, being a red herring, what it's doing is it's distracting you from something that's happening in the background, where there is actually a better candidate to be the murderer, but the author doesn't want you to know that yet. Red herrings are frequently used for another plot device, which is of course the plot twist, right? Very difficult to have a plot twist without a series of very well laid out red herrings. Yeah.

R: And you have to be very balanced in how you use them. So you don't tip off that they are red herrings. Like they can't be so overtly obvious, although in certain genres they are tropes and people want the red herring and they want to be the smart one who figures out who the actual killer is before the detective realizes they are after the wrong person or whatever.

K: Red herrings can actually be used within the book as well. Something that the you know, antagonist of the story does, to deliberately mislead our band of noble heroes and send them off on a wild goose chase so they can continue their nefarious plans undeterred, would be a red herring used within the context of the story. That's I hope kind of a good, "This is a plot device. This is a MacGuffin," but one thing I did want to touch on was things that can be MacGuffins, but don't seem like they would be MacGuffins. Because as we mentioned, MacGuffin is need to be, you know, functionally meaningless interchangeable and lacking agency. And these don't necessarily seem like things that would check off those boxes

R: Just by their inherent nature. You're going to say people as your first one. So like you would see a character and you're going to think they're going to act with some agency. They're going to try to manipulate the world around them to get what they want. But sometimes...

K: Sometimes they're just MacGuffins. You know, I mentioned, I am going to go back and try to figure this out. If Bella from Twilight is actually just a MacGuffin. My— I'm going to say in some books, yes. For staggeringly, large parts of the book. Baby Yoda is a MacGuffin for a really long time in the Mandalorian. Yes, it's a sentient functioning creature that in some cases does interact with and change the environment, but he really doesn't have a lot of agency. He's just sort of, kind of getting carted around by, by the Mandalorian.

R: He wants to eat amphibians.

K: He wants to eat amphibians and their eggs. And everybody wants him. Everyone is trying to get this child that—the viewer see some examples of his power early on, but most of the people trying to get him don't realize that. And even, you know, up to the very end, if not like at the, you know, the end of the story so far, he's suddenly become a very involved, interactive character, altering and changing the world around him. He's still, he's an object that's handed off.

R: Right. Although technically by sending the Jedi signal homing signal, yes, he does get used. So therefore—.

K: Yes, he becomes a plot device at that point.

R: He is no longer a MacGuffin, but yeah, for most of the season, he is.

K: He's kind of a Deus ex Machina there.

R: Well, okay. Is he the Deus ex Machina or is Luke showing up to take him away the Deus ex Machina?

K: Spoilers for Mandalorian season two, which—

R: If you care, you already know.

K: Yeah, Exactly. No, I would say he's the Deus ex Machina because by that point, Luke is a function of him. He only shows up for him. Okay. He's not a MacGuffin because he's not interchangeable if you know, Han Solo showed up that wouldn't have been very helpful for everyone. I mean, you know, extra gun, I guess, but Luke's the one we really needed in that situation, but yeah. And you see this you see this a lot in video games, like the escort quests, where, you know, you just have like some silly character that keeps trying to like run into dangerous situations and you have to prevent them from doing it. That's, they're serving as a MacGuffin at that point. You know, Rekka made the example of like the damsel in distress. People can be MacGuffins for a time and then change into plot devices or then even characters.

R: Okay. But when you are looking over somebody or something from a story, how do you say here's where they change? And that changes them like before they weren't a plot device?

K: Where, where is the crossover?

R: Well, like when you're, when you're saying like, yes, that's a MacGuffin or yes, that's a plot device. Like if, as a plot device that meant that later they did something. So then were they ever a MacGuffin?

K: Yes. MacGuffins do not have to stay MacGuffins. Hmm. You can graduate from MacGuffin to plot device and plot device to character. That's what typically is going to take a person from a MacGuffin to, you know, being part of the story, be it as a character or a plot device is them acting either on their own behalf or on the behalf of the people that were basically treating them as a MacGuffin at that point. Some of the common tropes with this is them suddenly gaining a power of some kind, you know, maybe this was like this you know, child princess that needed to be escorted across the galaxy. So she could go back and claim her throne. But basically we just had to keep her hidden and locked away and make sure, you know, people keep attacking the ship and trying to stop us from getting her home.

K: But then she touches a crystal that she shouldn't have. And now she's going to get them all safely home she's then, you know, not a MacGuffin at that point, she is, you know, a character or maybe on some level, a plot device, usually in order for a person to be a true MacGuffin, they have to be completely helpless: babies, children that can't take care of themselves or, oh, here's a good one. Macguffins that will—like I mentioned with Ozma in, you know, the Wizard of Oz sequel books—MacGuffins that you didn't realize were with you the whole time. And they transform into something that transcends being a MacGuffin. You know, they were cursed to just be this rock. And for some reason, someone's got the rock with them the whole time and it's a MacGuffin, but then it's, you know, we broke the curse and it's actually a person.

R: Or in science fiction, you might have somebody that's like in stasis, in cryo, and you don't know why you're transporting them or why everyone keeps attacking your ship to get them or something.

K: Macguffins aren't static. They don't always have to stay MacGuffin. A good example of a MacGuffin that does not stay MacGuffin is an egg, anytime, you know, there's a, a precious egg or something similar that we have to, you know, be transporting and getting to wherever it needs to hatch or something. And then it hatches probably dragons are a really good example or trope here. And then it actually hatches and turns into a dragon. Well, that dragon is not a MacGuffin because it's a dragon.

R: And at the very least it changes the plot by being a hungry, now-alive thing.

K: Very much so, very much. So other things that can be MacGuffins. We talked about interchangeable objects a little bit, you know, the MacGuffin does not have to be the static standard object to the whole time. It can change. It can be, you know, it's whatever the character or characters desire or need at that moment.

R: It could be a relay race of MacGuffins.

K: Exactly. Really, honestly it could. It really could. And then the other one that I had made a note of here is a place. So, you know, we think of the MacGuffin as an object that you're trying to hold, but it can also be a place that you're trying to get to that is, you know, maybe not, we're not sure if it's real, if it's a fabled, you know, legendary location El Dorado is a good example of that. A lot of, a lot of treasure seeking-based stories have places that sort of serve as MacGuffins. And to the clear, the treasure being a MacGuffin and the place being a MacGuffin are two different things, because the treasure—like I'll go back to National Treasure—Um they very explicitly stayed in that, that it's been moved around a lot. So they're not trying to find a specific place. They are trying to find a specific thing. They just don't know where it is.

R: And once they get it, they're going to remove it from that place.

K: Yes. A MacGuffin that is a place is a specific spot that you've got to get to. Maybe it's a sacred temple where you could only perform this specific resurrection spell, or maybe it's a city made entirely of gold or like Treasure Planet was a good one because you had to get to that specific planet and that specific place on the planet in order to, you know, find and access all of this treasure.

R: Or in the Mummy Returns, when they are trying to release the scorpion bracelet from their son's wrist, they have to go to this temple specifically to do that.

K: Yeah. So places can be a little tricky. They, they verge a little bit more on, on plot devices, but there are definitely a place can serve as a MacGuffin, especially if it's like a legendary one that nobody can really prove exists.

K: By the way, if there's a lot to read on a MacGuffin is out there and you know, why they're, they're really not actually a bad, a bad thing. But conflating them, you know, conflating all plot devices and saying it's a MacGuffin is not actually accurate.

K: Because plot devices are a lot more dynamic than MacGuffins. And there's a lot of different types and how they can be replied. Plot devices are a writing technique. Macguffins are a component of the writing technique. So anyway, I like a good MacGuffin. I think they're a lot of fun. And I think plot devices can be really helpful for, for writing. Again, it's something that like, there are these things that I think like they just exist. They're things that we have and things we have to, you know, have in our stories, but we talk about them very dismissively for some reason. I'm never quite sure why that is.

R: I think a lot of the dismissiveness comes from people who have more of a literary mind with regard to their storytelling.

K: Possibly.

R: So that either they are dismissive of genre fiction entirely, or they feel like it's their duty to elevate genre fiction by eliminating tropes, which would then eliminate the genre.

K: Yeah.

R: Um yeah, I think that that's the perception I get anyway from the discourse I see about these things, but yeah. I definitely got the impression as a, you know, emerging writer that MacGuffins, were a bad thing. But you know, as we pointed out, there's a lot of people's favorite movies, favorite stories, favorite movies, favorite plays that are just chock full of MacGuffins.

K: All of the Indiana Jones,

R: Pretty much, yeah. This belongs in a museum because it can just go behind glass and stay there. But in the meantime, let's fight over it.

K: They Ark of the Covenant by the way, is one of my favorite MacGuffins: the Instakill MacGuffin. By the way, this is a trope is the MacGuffin that you get. And you're finally like, "Haha I have the thing." And then it kills everyone.

R: The MacGuffin that you should not mess with.

K: Yes. I like MacGuffins.

R: Macguffins are good. And if the advice is, "I don't know what to do in the scene," "make something blow up." Like why not use a MacGuffin to keep your plot moving forward?

K: Yeah.

R: There's definitely a draw in like wanting an object. People can understand multiple people wanting the same object. This is the nature of humanity. So it's something we can identify quickly and relate to and understand without spending a whole bunch of time on it.

K: If you just exist in your life, you're going to come across a lot of MacGuffins. My current MacGuffin is I really want a bagel.

R: But it has to be a New York bagel. So it's not just a MacGuffin.

K: It has to be the everything bagel with scallion cream cheese from the place around the corner from me. And the thing is, I don't have time to go get it right now, but I really want it. And for my life, it is functionally meaningless and interchangeable, because I could very easily just go get some toast out of the fridge and that will nourish and satiate me. But it's not the thing that I desire.

R: But it's not. Yeah. It's not going to satisfy you. It's just going to feed you.

K: Yes, exactly. Exactly. All right. Well, I think that's MacGuffins. Thank you so much, everyone for listening.

R: And we'll be back with something else that we have opinions on in two weeks.

K: We have a lot of opinions.

R: Thanks, everyone.

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