In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin's importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations. The most common type of MacGuffin is a person, place, or thing (such as money or an object of value).
The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually, the MacGuffin is revealed in the first act, and thereafter declines in importance. It may reappear 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.
The use of a MacGuffin as a plot device predates the name "MacGuffin". The Holy Grail of Arthurian Legend has been cited as an example of an early MacGuffin, as the desired object that serves to advance the plot. 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 often the villains as well, to pursue each other through the convoluted plots of The Perils of Pauline and the other silent film serials in which she starred. In the 1929 detective novel The Maltese Falcon, a small statuette provides both the book's eponymous title and its motive for intrigue.
The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized 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 in New York:
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 also said, "The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don't care."
Hitchcock's term "MacGuffin" helped him to assert that his films were in fact not what they appeared to be on the surface. Hitchcock also related this anecdote in a television interview for Richard Schickel's documentary The Men Who Made the Movies, and in an interview with Dick Cavett.
On the commentary soundtrack to the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, 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". In contrast, Lucas believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that "the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling 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.
Alfred Hitchcock popularized the use of the MacGuffin technique. Examples from Hitchcock films include plans for a silent plane engine in The 39 Steps, radioactive uranium ore in Notorious, and a clause from a secret peace treaty in Foreign Correspondent. Other examples of its use in film include the Maltese Falcon in the 1941 film of the same name, the meaning of "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane (1941), the Heart of the Ocean necklace in 1997's Titanic, and the "Rabbit's Foot" in Mission: Impossible III (2006). Emphasizing the point that the nature of the MacGuffin is not important, in the film Ronin (1998), the MacGuffin is a metallic briefcase whose contents are never revealed. In discussing the mixed critical reception of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) where a primary criticism was that the crystal skull in the film was seen as an unsatisfying MacGuffin, director Steven Spielberg said, "I sympathize with people who didn't like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin."
In both film and literature, the Holy Grail is often used as a MacGuffin. The 1975 cult classic surreal comedic film Monty Python and the Holy Grail is loosely structured around a knightly quest for the sacred relic. Another well-known example is the infamous briefcase essential throughout 1994's Pulp Fiction. This device closely adheres to the characteristic of "little to no narrative explanation" by never revealing the glowing contents of the briefcase, despite being quintessentially priceless and violently coveted by many major characters.
Examples in television include various Rambaldi artifacts 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 composed Robotech. The Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been described as a kind of topological MacGuffin: "a shortcut, in lieu of scientific explanation," as Joss Whedon put it.
In the online game The Kingdom of Loathing, the player's character must eventually complete a long and convoluted quest named "player name and The Quest for the Holy MacGuffin". It involves going to several locations while following clues from the character's father's diary and collecting various items. Eventually, it ends in a boss battle and the MacGuffin is returned to the council. The game never reveals what exactly it is or how it will aid in saving the kingdom.
In medieval Arthurian romance, the attainment of the Grail metaphorically signifies that the hero seeking the Grail has achieved a state of ideal spiritual knighthood. (...) the filmmakers also imbue their own Grail with a metaphorical meaning that far outweighs its literal importance as a physical object. The quest for the Grail becomes symbolic for the spiritual quest of the hero (...) (quoting George Lucas) 'The MacGuffin [i.e. the Grail] had always been the problem'.
Hitch said a MacGuffin was an object—a briefcase, a Maltese falcon—that drives the plot forward without you ever having to know what it is.