4.2 Maguffins

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I believe Alfred Hitchcock invented the word maguffin. A maguffin is an object (or less commonly a person or event) that lies at the center of many kinds of story. People search for it, pursue it, steal it, kill for it, try to find out what it is...and yet for all its apparent importance to the plot, its only real value is as an excuse for people to do things.
Maguffins abound in SF&F. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is obviously a maguffin. Itís something the bad guys want; itís something the good guys have to deal with. While the One Ring is everpresent on one level, the book is actually about a group of heroes being heroic. This is obvious in all the Tolkien imitators that weíve seen since LOTR came out-people are constantly chasing the Sword of This or the Tome of That as an excuse for getting into trouble. Over in science fiction, you see maguffins like the Genesis Device or the plans of the Death Star.

The Maltese Falcon is a good example of a maguffin. The falcon turns out to be a jewel-encrusted statue that's been coated over to make it look "normal", but from a storytelling point of view, the falcon could be anything people consider valuable. It might just as easily have contained Nazi military plans or the combination to a safe; it might have been the symbol of office of the King of Ruritania or the key to finding the Ark of the Covenant. It doesn't matter what the falcon is, as long as people want it.

Here's another example: I once heard an interview with Michael Palmer, an M.D. who writes medical thrillers. He talked about his first book where a young intern is working in the E.R., tending to a dying man. Just before the man dies, he gives the intern a key; soon afterward, the intern realizes that he's being followed. The rest of the book is about the intern trying to discover what the key unlocks while being pursued by bad guys who want the key back.

Palmer pointed out that the key appears to be the most important thing in the story...but in fact, it doesn't really matter what the key opens. It's simply an excuse for action to happen. Eventually, of course, the book does have to explain what's going on and why the key is valuable—otherwise, readers will get pissed off. But the explanation is just needed for closure, not for the plot itself.

There is nothing wrong with centering your stories around a maguffin—it's a time-honored technique (as in searching for the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece), and it will continue to work as a plot device far into the future. But for heaven's sake, realize that the maguffin is unimportant. The Maltese Falcon isn't a classic because of the falcon; it's a classic because of Sam Spade and Caspar Gutman, because of its hardboiled attitude and some immortal lines of dialogue.

If your story is only about the maguffin, it's a hollow shell. To give the story a heart and brains, you need characters, emotion, meaning, and nuance. Those are the things readers remember: people, scenes, and atmosphere, not niceties of plot.

Plot Coupons: While we're talking about plot devices, I suppose I should mention the idea of "plot coupons." This is a derisive term used in connection with stories like this: The hero's father is killed by a demon; the hero wants revenge, and learns the demon can only be killed by the Sword of Kumquat; the only person who knows the location of the sword is the Sage Rashomon; the hero goes looking for Rashomon; Rashomon is imprisoned in a golden bubble; the bubble can only be broken by ringing the Bell of Adano; the hero goes off to find the Bell; he finally gets it and frees Rashomon, but the Sage says you can't get the sword unless you have the Rainbow Key...

You get the idea. The bell and the key and sword and Rashomon are called "plot coupons." The novel is basically about the hero traipsing about collecting coupons. When the hero collects enough coupons to fulfill his goal, he beats the bad guy and the novel ends.

There's an obvious similarity between maguffins and plot coupons. A maguffin is a single thing that propels the story; plot coupons are a succession of things that propel successive sections of the story. Both maguffins and plot coupons have the same weakness—if your story is only about chasing the maguffin or collecting coupons, the result is hollow...just an unsatisfying sequence of incidents.

You have to give the reader more. The incidents have to mean something. There has to be emotional resonance. Characters have to develop, rather than just running around. The difference between a good story and a bad one is not the plot; it's everything besides the plot. Therefore if your story is just a bunch of characters chasing plot coupons, you're in trouble.

Give your reader more.

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Copyright © 2001, James Alan Gardner