What is a McGuffin?

If you’re a new thriller writer looking to get published, you will first need to look at what the industry wants, and more importantly what it expects. Writing styles have changed dramatically over the past two to three years, and unlike a few years ago when writing a really good story might be enough to get a publisher interested, invest some time, and help you prepare your work for the marketplace, these days they expect your work to be stunning, top notch, and capable of getting onto the best seller list from the outset. It would also appear that publishers are no longer willing to take what they consider to be a talented new writer under their wing and develop their talent. AH

Over the next two to three weeks, I will endeavour to share with you what I’ve learned from working with one of the largest publishers in the world, and a very talented literary agent. I am aware that some of it may be “old hat” to some of you, but it is not necessarily a bad thing to re-cover old ground.

Each of the articles presented on the site will cover just one of the elements required to build both a successful and sellable story, but it will also be short enough for you to absorb and put into practice at a single sitting, without having to produce reams of notes to continually refer back to. So, with that in mind, here goes…

Obviously, the first thing you have to do is construct a rough framework for your story; where and when it is set, whether the main character is a hero or heroine, and the basic plot – what the story is all about. For instance, let us say that your story is set in southern England just after the end of the Second World War.   Your hero, in this case, is Jack, a farm worker and ex-soldier who has recently returned from the war in Europe. Arriving late for work one morning, he discovers the half-naked body of a young woman in a barn, the victim of a brutal murder. Clutched in the corpse’s right hand is a torn piece of paper with the name of a plush London hotel and a handwritten foreign name.  Jack does the right thing and immediately informs the local police of his discovery, but later that day, unwilling to divulge his whereabouts that morning, he automatically becomes the major suspect. Armed only with the name of the hotel and the mysterious name, Jack sets out alone for London in an attempt to find the murderer and clear his name. It is not until the very end of the book that the reader discovers that the piece of paper and the name written on it are totally irrelevant and that they have nothing at all to do with the crime. This, the piece of paper and the name written on it, is what is known in the trade as a “McGuffin”.

The term “McGuffin” was first coined by Alfred Hitchcock and he explained the term “McGuffin” during a lecture at Columbia University back in 1939:

“In regard to the tune, we have a name for it in the studio, it is what we call the ‘McGuffin’. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in a story. In crook stories, it is always the necklace, and in spy stories it is always the papers. As writers what we must try to do is be a little more original”.

Hitchcock borrowed the term “McGuffin” from a shaggy-dog story where a train passenger is carrying a large odd-shaped package. The passenger calls it a McGuffin and explains to his curious fellow passengers that it’s a device used to catch lions in the Scottish Highlands. When they protest that there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands, he simply replies, “Well then, this can not be a McGuffin.”

Consequently, having a strong McGuffin is extremely important when constructing an excellent story. It’s a device that helps drive the plot forward but is surprisingly of little importance in itself.

A McGuffin can be a person, an object, or an event that the characters of a story are interested in, but that, intrinsically, is of little concern. For example, in Hitchcock’s movie “North by Northwest”, the villains are searching for a character named George Kaplan. In their eagerness to find him, they mistake Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive, for Kaplan, and the chase begins. Eager to extricate himself from this deadly situation, Thornhill himself begins searching for Kaplan, a person who in the end doesn’t even exist.

However, it is essential that your McGuffin be both subtle and intriguing. In the end it can be either totally irrelevant or extremely important to the story, but it should/must not be so contorted and/or elaborate that it throws the novel out of whack, regardless of how successfully it propels the plot forward.

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