What’s a “MacGuffin” Anyhow? A Little Investigation of my Own

By Lisa Alber

Since the last time I wrote here, my third novel, PATH INTO DARKNESS launched. Woohoo! It’s always a fun thing, the culmination of at least two years of hard work. Along with the launch, come the reviews, which I try not to notice all that much … (yeah, right).

But then, last week, I got a nice surprise: my local alternative paper, the Willamette Week—bastion of Portland, OR, hipness and snark—featured a review of the novel. Color me shocked, to be honest. I’d never seen an actual full book review in the newspaper. Maybe it was a slow news week in the land of hip, I don’t know. I was hesitant to read the review. Snark doesn’t tend to be magnanimous, and, indeed, the reviewer had a nice way of coating what might considered a positive aspect of the novel with the glow of ambiguity.

But, it’s all good. I was thrilled to see the review and picked up about ten copies of the print version. 🙂

One sentence sticks out near the beginning of the review: “…the murder is just the MacGuffin, a hedge mower clearing the underbrush to look at the gross stuff underneath.”

Using the term “MacGuffin” in a book review interests me. That’s a writing craft kind of word, the kind of concept that the average reader won’t understand or care about it.

First thought: Really? Thanks for letting me know.

Second thought: What’s a MacGuffin again?

Third thought: Is that a bad thing?

I get what the reviewer is saying, maybe: The murder of Elder Joe at the beginning of the book is the least of the events and mysteries to sort out. One thing leads to another, and before you know it there’s a whole ‘nother thing going down that could be related to Elder Joe’s death, but maybe it’s not, and maybe there’s some more bad stuff brewing.

What can I say, this is the world of dark crime fiction — shit (or maybe “shite” since the story’s set in Ireland) happens. When you’re writing mystery, that’s pretty much the point!

I’m not sure the reviewer used the term “MacGuffin” correctly, so bear with me as I investigate. Review aside, I am interested in the MacGuffin concept anyhow.

Here’s what I know to start with: MacGuffins are plot devices. Too bad the term “plot device” always seems to come along with a sneer, like it’s a bad thing, like if you’re a writer using a plot device, then you’re basically a hack — so-called “literary” writers don’t use plot devices, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

We could mine that topic until the next eclipse …  To continue, looking around the Internet, I see that “MacGuffin” is typically defined as the object (person, place, thing) around which a plot revolves, and said object may or may not be all that important. The Maltese Falcon statuette, the Holy Grail, a lost manuscript, the lost city of Atlantis, and so on.

If you want to get all technical about it, I guess you could say that a dead body is an object around which a mystery plot revolves, therefore, a MacGuffin. But that seems silly. Might as well say that the love interest the heroine meets at the beginning of a romance novel is a MacGuffin.

On WikiPedia, the definition includes, “Other more abstract types [of MacGuffins] include victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.”

Well, huh. Every story, I mean every story ever written, has a MacGuffin then, which renders the term pretty useless. If a story doesn’t revolve around something, then what’s the point of it? So I reject that wider definition. I’ll remain a purist on the topic, which is more the Hitchcockian way of thinking of MacGuffins.

I have a go-to writing book that I dip into now and then for inspiration and reminders: Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY. Since she writes crime fiction, I’m curious what she has to say about MacGuffins within our genre. She considers MacGuffins a craft element that you can use to increase suspense. She says, “… it’s the race itself — the race to possess the MacGuffin in advance of the other characters — that creates the suspense.”

OK, yeah, that makes sense — a lot of sense.

My conclusion? I have a more purist definition of “MacGuffin,” so I don’t think a murder at the beginning of a mystery counts as one, even when said murder ends up not being the point of the story. (Like the Maltese Falcon statue itself not really being the point of the story.)

Did the reviewer misuse the term? Meh. Not sure. Kind of. You can argue either way. It’s just not fully apt, in my opinion. In my literary jargon, Elder Joe’s death is the inciting incident — the event that gets the plot rolling so that I can, as the reviewer so descriptively put it, examine deeper and darker territory.

What’s your take on the MacGuffin? Do you define it more in the Hitchcockian way? Or include abstractions in your definition? Do you even care?

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What I Did on My Summer Vacation

img_6420By Lisa Alber

You know what’s funny? Since my last post here on ShadowSpinners, my second novel launched–woohoo!–but I’m already so far beyond the fact of it, that I’m not going to tell you about the book, WHISPERS IN THE MIST. Easy enough to get information online, if you so desire.

I spent most of my summer feeling harassed by the specter of the public life (readings, launch party, etcetera) and stressing out about promotion and publicity tasks. Plus, August was shite-meet-fan deadline time for my next novel, you know, the untitled one that’s coming out next year around this time? Yeah, that one. And, frankly, book launch was getting in my way. I wanted it done and gone and behind me, which only added to my stress.

After awhile, I imagined WHISPERS like a baby too long in the womb: Get this bloody thing out of me! A tad dramatic, true, because it’s thrilling to have a book come out, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’d practically forgotten what WHISPERS was about because I was so immersed in the next next novel.

My head at the beginning of August: I have to talk about WHISPERS now? Yeesh … Can’t I hole up with my deadline for the next novel? Really, I’m frantic about handing it off to my editor in decent shape. The manuscript needs so much work. It’s an utter tragedy, and the ENDING ISN’T RIGHT!

Plus, I have a day job (alas) with big August deadlines every year, wouldn’t you know it. Plus, for some reason everything the publisher might want and need from me (in addition to the manuscript and authorial book launch tasks) landed in the hopper in August too: flap copy, book cover discussions, proposal for next books. Yee gads.

I’m happy to announce that in the wee hours of Thursday, September 1st, I emailed my editor the manuscript for Novel #3, a.k.a next next novel. And that was it. The black-out curtains closed on Lisa the Author for a full week. I looked forward to a last summer-hurrah (but really, what summer?) Labor Day weekend full of zippity-do-da-nothing that included a marathon of “The Affair,” season two (recommended if only to see how the screenwriter plays with point of view), reading for more than ten minutes in a sitting, and sleeping.

img_6463It’s been a restful week, but the new school year has begun and I’m already behind! I probably should have started writing the next next next novel (pub date 2018–isn’t that crazy?) by now. The other night a character revelation popped into my head, so that was a good sign. I bought a new organizational notebook (Christina, you might like it!). I have my first task list in said notebook. I need new business cards and need to prepare for a reading tomorrow night and next week I’m flying to New Orleans for a huge conference and need to–what?–something …

Hold on, wait–the next next next novel! Before I know it, it’s going to be a year from now, and I’ll be freaking out all over again. Number one priority: write first draft. This will be number one priority (and home squalor be damned) for the next, oh … nine months? Do you think I can finish the first draft by June 2017?

So, let the school (writing) year begin!

What’s on your list as the school year begins?