McGuffin – Definition & Detailed Explanation – Screenwriting Glossary Terms

What is a McGuffin?

A McGuffin is a term coined by filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock to refer to an object, person, or goal that serves as a driving force for the characters in a story. The McGuffin is typically an item of great importance that motivates the characters to take action and move the plot forward. However, the actual nature of the McGuffin is often irrelevant to the overall story and serves primarily as a plot device to create conflict and tension.

Examples of McGuffins in Film

One of the most famous examples of a McGuffin in film is the briefcase in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” The contents of the briefcase are never revealed, but it serves as a catalyst for the characters’ actions throughout the film. Another classic example is the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name, where the characters are all in pursuit of the valuable statue, even though its true worth is never fully explained.

The Purpose of a McGuffin in Screenwriting

The primary purpose of a McGuffin in screenwriting is to create tension and drive the plot forward. By introducing an object or goal that the characters are all in pursuit of, the writer can create conflict and motivation for the characters to take action. The McGuffin also serves as a way to keep the audience engaged and invested in the story, as they are eager to see how the characters will ultimately obtain or achieve the object of their desire.

How to Use a McGuffin Effectively

To use a McGuffin effectively in a screenplay, it is important to establish the importance of the object or goal early on in the story. The McGuffin should be introduced in a way that makes it clear why the characters are willing to go to great lengths to obtain it. Additionally, the McGuffin should be integrated into the plot in a way that feels organic and natural, rather than forced or contrived.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using a McGuffin

One common mistake when using a McGuffin in a screenplay is making the object or goal too obvious or predictable. The best McGuffins are those that are shrouded in mystery and intrigue, keeping the audience guessing until the very end. Another mistake is relying too heavily on the McGuffin to drive the plot, rather than developing strong character motivations and relationships. The McGuffin should enhance the story, not overshadow it.

The Evolution of the McGuffin in Film

Over the years, the concept of the McGuffin has evolved in film to encompass a wider range of objects, goals, and motivations. While the traditional McGuffin was often a physical object of great value, modern filmmakers have expanded the definition to include more abstract concepts such as love, power, or redemption. Regardless of its form, the McGuffin remains a powerful tool for screenwriters to create tension, conflict, and excitement in their stories.