In filmmaking, a MacGuffin refers to a plot device that drives the characters’ actions and motivations in a story, but its specific nature or purpose is often unimportant or left ambiguous. The term was popularized by filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Often, the MacGuffin serves as a catalyst for the plot, propelling the characters into action and leading them through various events and conflicts. It can be any object, such as a mysterious briefcase, a hidden treasure, or a secret document.

The MacGuffin motivates the characters and drives the narrative forward, rather than having its own intrinsic value or meaning.

Alfred Hitchcock once humorously described the MacGuffin as “the thing that the spies are after, but the audience doesn’t care.” you can interpret it as, MacGuffin is a thing that characters are after but the audience doesn’t care, they are instead emotionally invested in the journey our character takes to get it. This underlines the concept that the audience’s focus is on the characters and the suspense created by their pursuit of the MacGuffin, rather than the MacGuffin itself. And as the story progresses, the audience may or may not learn more about the MacGuffin.

The essence of a MacGuffin is that its specific nature or resolution is not the primary focus of the story. Instead, it serves as a driving force to propel the characters and the narrative forward, creating conflict and motivation for their actions. When the audience is invested in the outcome of a plot device or element, it is no longer considered a MacGuffin.

Let’s look at some of the examples:

Example of MacGuffin:

“Pulp Fiction” (1994) In “Pulp Fiction,” the briefcase is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The contents of the briefcase are never revealed, and the audience’s interest is not in the briefcase itself but in the characters’ interactions, conflicts, and moral dilemmas that revolve around it. The briefcase serves as a catalyst for various events, propelling the characters forward while keeping the nature of its contents mysterious and unimportant.

On the other hand, examples of elements that are not MacGuffins include:

“Harry Potter” series: The Horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows are integral to the story, and the audience is emotionally engaged with their history, implications, and the characters’ quest to find and destroy them.

A MacGuffin is not just limited to physical objects; even intangible plot devices, such as concepts or emotions that drive characters and advance the story, can be considered MacGuffins. The condition remains the same, the audience should be invested in the character’s journey and not the plot device. As I said, if they are invested in the outcome, it is not a MacGuffin.

For example:

Example of MacGuffin:

“Casablanca” (1942): The letters of transit serve as a MacGuffin, driving the plot’s intrigue and character interactions, but the audience’s focus is on the romantic tension, patriotism, and moral dilemmas faced by the characters.

“The Searchers” (1956): The search for a kidnapped girl serves as a MacGuffin, propelling the narrative, while the audience becomes engrossed in the character study of John Wayne’s complex antihero and the exploration of racism and frontier life.

On the other hand, examples of elements that are not MacGuffins include:

“Jurassic Park” (1993): The cloned dinosaurs and the park itself are central to the plot, and the audience is captivated by the wonder, danger, and ethical dilemmas surrounding genetic engineering.

“The Matrix” (1999): The virtual reality simulation is essential to the story, and the audience’s focus is on its implications for human existence, the characters’ awakening, and the philosophical questions raised.