Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis
abandoned-railway-tracks-in-the-desert-namibia-stockpack-adobe-stock
Abandoned railway tracks in the desert, Namibia
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock

The MacGuffin: Big Fuss About Nothing Is Not Good Science Fiction

A MacGuffin creates a lot of action but doesn’t in any way advance the plot

As with Time Travel, the MacGuffin plot risk comes in a variety of flavors. People bicker about the term, but Alfred Hitchcock (1863–1942) summarized the gist of it: A MacGuffin is “the thing the characters on the screen worry about but the audience don’t care.”

The MacGuffin creates a lot of action but doesn’t in any way advance the plot.

The action is not the problem. If the item contributes to the plot in a significant way — the One Ring from Lord of the Rings or the Dragon Balls from the Dragon Ball Series, for example — then it isn’t a MacGuffin. But if the item is inert and chased mainly because the characters want it, then it is a MacGuffin. A treasure hunt would be a good example of a MacGuffin Chase, or perhaps, the unknown item the federal agents are after in a spy film. There are a million ways to do this trope right, and one big way to do the trope wrong, which is the subject of this article.

The central problem with poorly handled MacGuffin Chases

A MacGuffin Chase is frequently used simply to get the cast from one location to another. In the end, the device in question is often nothing more than a Red Herring that puts the reader off the original scent. The Book of Vishanti in Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a good example of this. By the end of the film, the Book of Vishanti has done nothing to aid the heroes and the Darkhold becomes the item they needed all along. The Book of Vishanti was simply an excuse to get from one location to the next as the movie progressed.

And more to the point, in this example, the Book of Vishanti was a distraction from the main plot. The real story, the one the audience cared about, was Dr. Strange protecting America Chavez from the Scarlet Witch. But because the writers had stuck the cast in a multiverse — and they essentially had nothing to do while inside this multiverse — the writers invented a MacGuffin to waste time. The key problem with this trope is that the writers teased that the MacGuffin would actually do something when they had nothing of the kind in mind.

This is the big difference between a spy movie and a book like Treasure Island or the movie Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: In a spy movie or a treasure hunt, it is understood that the object in question can’t really do anything. The real story is the interactions between the characters.

However, in MacGuffin Chases like the one in Multiverse of Madness — which is nothing more than a bait and switch — the writers allow the audience to believe that the MacGuffin will do something to help the heroes or that it is significant in some way. In reality it will not serve any purpose to the plot, not even some dopey moral about the journey being the real treasure.

Essentially, the writers lie to the audience, a cardinal sin of storytelling if there ever was one.

Certain ways to create a twist are simply lazy. An episode of Bob’s Burgers illustrates this problem. Linda Belcher puts on a murder mystery where she says at the beginning of the play that she isn’t the murderer, then at the end of the performance, she says she did it. When the audience questions her about this, she calls her choice a twist, to which the audience promptly responds by saying, “It was a lie.” It’s the same thing here.

The storytelling issue isn’t whether the MacGuffin is real or does what is intended. As mentioned before, there are plenty of stories where the heroes fail to find the treasure or the artifact isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but the friends made along the way make the journey worth it. I personally find this trope distasteful, but it isn’t really offensive in terms of the storytelling art. All the essential plot elements are still resolved by the end of the story.

The issue arises when the MacGuffin is put forward to change something during the story but ultimately does nothing one way or the other. One example of this occurs in The Last Jedi. When Finn and Rose’s attempt to find the code breaker to disable the lightspeed tracker is fruitless, the plot continues as if Finn and Rose’s story never happened. Another example can be found in The Rise of Skywalker when Rey attempts to find a device which contains the directions to the Emperor’s planet. She goes through a variety of obstacles and unlikely circumstances only to see the device destroyed, and it turned out the entire chase was for nothing anyway because some random droid had the directions all along.

How MacGuffins frustrate a thoughtful audience

These MacGuffin Chases are infuriating because the entire plot revolves around finding the MacGuffin, only to see the object in question serve no purpose. Some random and unforeseen event comes out of nowhere to reestablish the plot.

The issue goes back to stakes and promises. If a writer insists that a device is all-important, then the promise is that, at least, part of the climax of the movie is going to revolve around finding this device. If the device turns out to serve no function, and this revelation happens too early in the story, then the writer must either reestablish the plot by providing another way to the end goal — which may also change depending on the circumstances— or must throw in a random act of fate to keep the story on course. But the audience is going to feel cheated no matter what the writer does.

Sadly, the MacGuffin has not evolved for the better over time. Its erroneous use has become more noticeable. Usually, these typical MacGuffins — such as the magic space map in The Rise of Skywalker — is a sign of hurried writing with little thought given to the particulars. MacGuffins can work well in a variety of circumstances but, if a writer is thinking of using one, the payoff had best be worth it if the audience is to approve.

We’ll begin a review of The Orville, Season 3 next time.

Here are my thoughts on four science fiction (and other) storytelling devices (tropes) that can be pitfalls if not properly managed:

Multiverse Trope: Madness: Why sci-fi multiverse stories often feel boring. Gary Varner: In a multiverse, every plot development, however implausible, is permitted because we know it won’t affect our return to the expected climax. Every scene in the multiverse feels like waiting. The viewer will literally be waiting for the rest of the movie to happen while inside the multiverse.

And the Time Travel Trope: Science fiction: Time travel can work — if clear rules are chosen I despise the Butterfly Effect in time travel stories because there is simply no way to establish what is at stake. Generally, for a satisfactory ending, the reader expects a return to the present. What to expect at that point must be carefully planned.

Plus: The Liar is Revealed! But does anyone still care? Stories where the central character lies about something important often waste audience time without building tension. It’s not that the central character must always be honest. Rather, if the story is not about moral reform, the lie’s “post-mortem” can become a distraction.

and

The MacGuffin: Big fuss about nothing is not good science fiction A MacGuffin creates a lot of action but doesn’t in any way advance the plot. These MacGuffin Chases are infuriating because the entire plot revolves around finding the MacGuffin but the object in question serves no purpose.


Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

The MacGuffin: Big Fuss About Nothing Is Not Good Science Fiction