Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Big MacGuffin

macguffin, the--a device or object that appears germane to the plot of a novel or short story but which has little to do with the outcome; a discovery such as a map, a letter, a weapon that serves as a plausible distraction from the throughline of a story.

The concept of the macguffin bears striking resemblance to anticlimax, which starts as an action,event or thought that distracts from a recently established dramatic high point, quite possibly even an intended conclusion or the payoff of a scene. Anticlimax is a dramatic pull away from the previous effect, leaving both reader and writer bewildered.

In a geometry class setting, macguffin could be demonstrated to be congruent to red herring which, one account of origins has it, was actually a dried fish, dragged across the trail of some valid prey such as a raccoon, fox or badger to draw young dogs in training off the scent, whereupon they would be educated not to be distracted. The red herring has the same purpose as the macguffin, which is to draw the attention of the characters and, if done to good effect, the readers off the true plot line of a story and into a dead end. Red herrings are also used in debate and logic contests to draw the participants off the throughline of argument.

A stand-out example of the macguffin at work is the reputed Maltese falcon of Dashiell Hammett's novel, a statue that may be a repository for jewels and gold. The Indiana Jones films also come to mind as does the Alfred Hitchcock film, North by Northwest, in which the macguffin was microfilm copies of documents "vital to the survival" of the United States. In much of its use, the macguffin begins with enormous importance, then, as characters begin to interact and alliances begin to be formed, its significance dwindles, making it possible to argue for the macguffin in a Western being grazing rights for cattle or barbed wire fences interfering with the concept of free range.

The macguffin is clearly a gimmick, an armature about which to wrap elements of plot and character. The more plausible it may be made to sound, the more convincing the surrounding responses of characters. An argument could accordingly be made for one of the great macguffins in American history being the Northwest Passage Lewis and Clark were dispatched to find in 1803, an argument that has as a collateral the dramatic value of the outcome, once the macguffin has failed to live up to its expectations.

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