Sep 28, 2021
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.