Sometimes the McGuffin matters

So I was reading Ross King’s book Ex-Libris this weekend, and I started thinking about McGuffins.
As many of you may know, it was Alfred Hitchcock who coined the term “McGuffin” for whatever the plot was about: The thing people were stealing, building, hunting for in Darkest Africa. Hitchcock’s position was that it didn’t matter what the McGuffin was, only what you did with it; its purpose was purely to put the plot in motion.
There’s much truth to that. In From Russia With Love, for instance, James Bond is after a Russian decoding device; for all the difference it made in the plot, it could just as easily have been a list of double-agents or the design for a new superbomb.
Similarly, in the origin of Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man, his secret identity is targeted by Red spies (always a beloved villain in sixties Marvel) because he’s working on a formula that will make people immune to fall out. Which is a neat idea, but it could just as easily have been a souped-up gamma bomb, a time machine or any other gadget.
And the super-weapons being sought by the villains in countless old movie serials could easily be some other gadget (my favorite example is from the comedy Shh! The Octopus, in which a character makes the revelation that “My father has invented a radium ray so powerful, whoever controls the ray controls the world!”).
But sometimes, the McGuffin matters. Most notably, I think, when the reason it’s important is presented as a mystery, because once that happens you have to have a good solution.
Case in point: Ex-Libris. The protagonist is a middle-class London bookseller in Restoration England hired by a nobleman’s widow to recover a particular book sold out of his library, a Hermetic text called The Labyrinth of the World. Only with all his expertise, he’s never heard of the book—and the Hermetic writing has been discredited as a source of ancient wisdom. And why is she so insistent that it be the exact same copy that once resided in her husband’s library?
Unsurprisingly, it turns out a number of people are interested in the book and a great deal of conspiring and scheming going on to get hold of it. And I frankly doubted the reason would be good enough.
Much to my surprise, it was; not stunningly original, but clever enough that it worked.
Likewise, in Robert Ludlum’s The Gemini Contenders, the hero and his brother are fighting for possession of a 2,000 year old manuscript that contains some incredible secret—one the bad brother hopes can be exploited for political gain. When we finally learn what the document says, it is indeed explosive and worth keeping secret.
On the other hand, the revelation in Katherine Neville’s The Eight, which is tied to an old chess set, didn’t feel at all satisfactory to me. Though it’s been years since I read the book, so I can’t say why.
The McGuffin doesn’t have to be anything special if you’ve got a good story to tell. But if you start hinting to readers that it’s really, really special, you’d better make the pay off worth the build-up.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Sometimes the McGuffin matters

  1. Pingback: The many flavors of Doc Savage: Pharaoh’s Ghost, The Man Who Was Scared, the Shape of Terror | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Doc Savage hunts some McGuffins: The Ten-Ton Snakes, Cargo Unknown and Rock Sinister | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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