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In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person; other types include money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or other things unexplained.
The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act, and thereafter declines in importance. It may re-appear at the climax of the story, but sometimes is actually forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively identified as plot coupons.
Objects that serve the plot function of MacGuffins have had long use in storytelling; for example, the Sampo in a segment of the Finnish epic Kalevala. The name "MacGuffin" appears to originate in 20th-century filmmaking, and was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s; but the concept pre-dates the term. The World War I–era actress Pearl White used weenie to identify whatever object (a roll of film, a rare coin, expensive diamonds, etc.) impelled the heroes and villains to pursue each other through the convoluted plots of The Perils of Pauline and the other silent film serials in which she starred.
The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term "MacGuffin" and the technique, with his 1935 film The 39 Steps, an early example of the concept. Hitchcock explained the term "MacGuffin" in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: "[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers".
It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" And the other answers, "Oh, that's a MacGuffin". The first one asks, "What's a MacGuffin?" "Well," the other man says, "it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well then, that's no MacGuffin!" So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.
Hitchcock related this anecdote in a television interview for Richard Schickel's documentary The Men Who Made the Movies and for Dick Cavett's interview. According to author Ken Mogg, screenwriter Angus MacPhail, a friend of Hitchcock, may have originally coined the term.
On the commentary soundtrack to the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars, writer and director George Lucas describes R2-D2 as "the main driving force of the movie … what you say in the movie business is the MacGuffin … the object of everybody's search". In TV interviews, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but as to what that object specifically is, he declared, "the audience don't care". Lucas, on the other hand, believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that "the audience should care about it almost as much as the duelling heroes and villains on-screen".
For filmmaker and drama writing theorist Yves Lavandier, in the strictly Hitchcockian sense, a MacGuffin is a secret that motivates the villains. North by Northwest's supposed MacGuffin is nothing that motivates the protagonist; Roger Thornhill's objective is to extricate himself from the predicament that the mistaken identity has created, and what matters to Vandamm and the CIA is of little importance to Thornhill. A similar lack of motivating power applies to the alleged MacGuffins of The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and Foreign Correspondent. In a broader sense, says Lavandier, a MacGuffin denotes any justification for the external conflictual premises of a work.
Some dictionary definitions are even more vague and generalized. For example, Princeton's WordNet defines a MacGuffin as simply "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction", which could refer to nearly anything at all in a story, given that audience-member attention is not reliably predictable.
Examples in film include the meaning of rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941), the titular Maltese Falcon, the Rabbit's Foot in Mission: Impossible III (2006), the briefcases in Pulp Fiction and Ronin, the Letters of Transit in Casablanca, the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic, and the mineral unobtainium in Avatar (2009).
Examples in television include the Rambaldi device in Alias, the orb in The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., and Krieger Waves in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "A Matter of Perspective". Carl Macek created protoculture as a MacGuffin to unite the storylines of the three separate anime that comprised Robotech.
In discussing the mixed critical reception of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Spielberg said, "I sympathize with people who didn't like the MacGuffin (the crystal skull) because I never liked the MacGuffin."