The Abuse of MacGuffins

I stumbled across a brilliant video on YouTube explaining a huge part of what’s wrong with many modern action/adventure movies, superhero and sci-fi ones in particular. It’s the over-use and abuse of “MacGuffins”.

For those who follow me but are not heavily into writing, or just never otherwise heard the term, a MacGuffin is simply an item that exists to move the plot along. Usually, the plot is outright built around the MacGuffin. Some examples:

  • Every Infinity Stone based artifact that the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has been built around
  • The Infinity Gauntlet itself
  • The Mother Boxes in Justice League
  • The Jewel in each “Jumanji” movie
  • R2D2 or more accurately the Death Star plans he was carrying in “A New Hope”
  • The artifact being chased after in each Indiana Jones movie

With a little effort I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other examples in movies, TV, and books as well.

As the video I saw pointed out, a MacGuffin itself isn’t a bad thing. Like any writer’s tool, it’s how you use it. While I love the superhero genre, I think after 12 years of Marvel movies with plots built around doomsday weapon MacGuffins, that we can all agree that specific use has been done to death. It made Justice League feel like a cheap copy of MCU movies when they went for the Mother Boxes as the key to stopping the invasion.

The video author pointed out that the trouble with a MacGuffin is that the characters care about it, but the audience often won’t. He cited putting the Death Star plans into R2D2 as a clever way to get the audience invested in the MacGuffin because they cared about the character.

The main takeaway from that video seemed to be to try to avoid building the entire story around the MacGuffin. There’s the aforementioned doomsday no-no. Also, don’t have it ever-present in the story. That’s a big difference between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Another good example is the BB gun that Ralphie wanted in “A Christmas Story”. Yes, it was a MacGuffin, but the story truly focused on his trials and tribulations as a kid at Christmas time and his humorously dysfunctional family. If anything, the “MacGuffin” there could be said to be the recognition that he was old / big enough to handle the Red Ryder BB gun instead of the gun itself.

Anything more, and I’d just be parroting the video author. Instead I’ll just provide a link to the video:

The author has his own channel that analyzes movies and such from a writer’s perspective. Thus far, it looks like a wealth of insight, and I’ll be giving the channel a much more in-depth look as time allows. If you’re a fellow writer, esp fiction writing, I’d recommend giving it a look. Me; I have moving and such first. *sigh*

As a side note, when I say I stumbled across the video, I was metaphorical. It *did* show up in my recommended videos list on the right side of the screen while searching for a how to video though. This despite the fact I’ve never searched for anything writing related on YouTube. Still think Google doesn’t track all you do and put that info to use?

5 thoughts on “The Abuse of MacGuffins

    1. Silk Cords Post author

      The video author actually gave that as another example of one done correctly. Largely because of the mystery around it’s contents and how the movie focused more on how it affected the characters

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Anonymole

    Hiding in plain sight.
    I wonder if the timing of the Macguffin’s creation affects its intrusion into the story. If the Ring in LOTR was the very first thing that Tolkien thought of. Or if it came later? (Hard to think of it coming later…)
    If the device only shows up as a thing, later and seldom in the story, does that make for a better story? The Philosopher’s Stone? It only seems satellite to the story.
    Oddly, in my first novel, I now realize I created a MacGuffin, but only vaguely. There’s a thing (a boat) that becomes central to the story. But it’s only a player in the story.
    I’ll have to think more on this subject… Thanks for the prompt.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: What Writers Can Learn From Star Wars' Mistakes | Silk Chatters

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