I don’t think Hitchcock invented the term, but he certainly popularised it and, in his typical mischievous style, stirred some confusion when he was asked to clarify what a MacGuffin was. The story he told went like this:
It might be a Scotttish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man asks, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" and the other answers, "Oh that's a McGuffin." The first one asks, "What's a McGuffin?" "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well, then that's no McGuffin!" So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.
That ‘explanation’ was made in 1966, but about thirty years earlier Hitch had offered a slightly more straightforward definition:
"[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers".
You could call it the object of interest, or the object of desire, except it isn’t always an object at all. Here’s a simple quiz. What are the MacGuffins in the following films and books? (For the answers, hit the Show/hide button at the end of the list.)
1. Pulp Fiction
2. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
3. The Usual Suspects
5. Citizen Kane
1. The case.
We never know what’s inside the case that hitmen Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) have been sent to retrieve, but the glow that emanates from it when Vincent opens to check inside suggests something either very valuable or very dangerous.
2. The Holy Grail.
The Holy Grail has been used many times as a MacGuffin: eg Monty Python and the Holy Grail; The Fisher King; The Da Vinci Code and many more.
3. Keyser Söze.
The twist is that the chief villain of the piece, who remains elusive even to his own men throughout, turns out to be none other than the chief ‘grass’ and narrator of the story, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey); but moments before the truth is revealed, Kint has quietly slipped away.
4. The dead Rebecca herself.
Rebecca seems to linger over all three leading characters – Maxim De Winter, the new Mrs De Winter and the housekeeper Mrs Danvers – and there are troubling ambiguities in that influence. The increasing mystery and final revelation of the cause of death drive the later stages of the novel, and De Maurier/Hitchcock manage the MacGuffin to upend our expectations.
Perhaps the most famous MacGuffin in movie history. All through the film we want to know what newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) meant by his deathbed utterance, "Rosebud." It is not until the end that it is revealed to be a name on a sled from Kane’s childhood - a symbol, in other words, of his lost innocence.
An important point that Hitchcock makes gnomically in his story of the parcel in the baggage rack is that the MacGuffin may turn out to be ‘nothing at all’. In the simplest case it could be a red herring, put there to distract from something that will emerge as important later; alternatively, it could appear for a long time to be something that it is not, as in the wonderfully macabre Don’t Look Now where the MacGuffin seems to be a little girl in a red duffel coat; and sometimes the MacGuffin, which seems so important at first, fades away, for its purpose of giving the characters a reason to be, or a reason to be there, has been served, and the story/characters/relationships take their own flight.
In my novel 11:59 the MacGuffin is a character called Hassan Malik, whom we hear but do not see in the first few pages, and who may or may not be dead. The mystery of Hassan and his corporeal status are what drives the central plot of the novel, provides the starting-point for much of the character interaction, and helps to twist the strands of the sub-plots too. But is Hassan ‘nothing at all’? You will have to read the book to find out.
The MacGuffin may be relatively easy to identify in a thriller, but what about in a historical novel? I would say that the MacGuffin in my (not yet published) Mr Stephenson’s Regret is the title. I want the reader to be asking, which Mr Stephenson and what is his regret? There are two candidates for the first answer, George and his son Robert; and there are a fair few regrets to choose from in both cases. I do hope, however, that before the end you will have worked out what precisely the title is referring to. Just to give a little hint: apart from the title I use the word regret only once among 117,000 others in the book. I wouldn’t want you to miss my MacGuffin.