As The Wheel Turns: MacGuffin’s Red Herring

What do you do to fight writer’s block? How do you move that stuck story forward? How do you squeeze an extra two thousand words into your finished story to make it long enough to call a novel?

Sometimes you just have to take a Mulligan. Wait. No, wrong sport. Sometimes you just have to use a MacGuffin.

Not necessarily a do-over as in golf, a MacGuffin can still be the savoir of the hurried author. It is a special type of plot device used to move the story along. What makes it special is that it does not matter what it is, i.e. you can substitute something else in for it, and it does not change the story. Generally it is an object desired by characters in the story, a motivating force for them, but its details are irrelevant, meaning the story would be the same with a different object used. For example, in the Peter Sellers movie The Pink Panther, the Pink Panther is a diamond. But It could have just as easily been a painting or a sculpture, or even Charlemagne’s lost diary. It really wouldn’t have affected the rest of the story, even though the entire story seemed to be set around it.

While several places credit the term to Alfred Hitchcock, others say he credited one of his screenwriters, Angus McPhail, with the idea and the name. McPhail supposedly took the name from a joke:

A man is riding on a train when a second gentleman gets on and sits down across from him. The first man notices the second is holding an oddly shaped package.
“What is that?” the first man asks.
“A MacGuffin, a tool used to hunt lions in the Scottish highlands.”
“But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands,” says the first man.
“Well then,” says the other, “That’s no MacGuffin”.

Although the term MacGuffin is usually attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, as a plot device it is much older.

According to TV Tropes, ‘Silent-film actress Pearl White starred in cliffhanger serials (most famously “The Perils of Pauline”) in which the characters spent most of their screen time chasing each other for possession of a roll of film, or some other doodad. This device occurred so often in Pearl White’s serial films that she routinely referred to the coveted object as a “weenie”, using the term precisely as Hitchcock would later use “MacGuffin”.’

Many people consider the MacGuffin itself irrelevant, but some try to use it in special ways.

Mystery writers often use it as a ‘red herring’ – a literary device intended to point readers, or characters, towards a false conclusion. While the MacGuffin is possibly still irrelevant to the story, it becomes central to influencing the thoughts of the reader and possibly the characters, arguably making it no longer a MacGuffin.

According to Wikipedia: ‘On the commentary soundtrack to the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars, 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”. Lucas, on the other hand, believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that “the audience should care about it almost as much as the duelling heroes and villains on-screen”.’

This, to me, goes against the idea of the MacGuffin and moves closer into the area of other plot devices.

TV Tropes had the best explanation and most comprehensive list of types of MacGuffins I found. If you are interested, I highly recommend going there and looking around. Plan on spending twenty minutes.

IGN has a top 10 list of movie MacGuffins if you are still trying to wrap your mind around the concept.

But what if you don’t need a MacGuffin? What if your story is just too short, or you are just fresh out of ideas?

Enter the Plot Wheel.

Not to be mistaken for the plotting wheel– a device to help you plan and structure your plot, the Plot Wheel is a wheel of fortune for your story. It can be used to determine the hero, the villain, the twist, and even the plot itself.

Reputedly used by Erle Stanley Gardner, one of the most prolific and bestselling authors of all time (he authored the Perry Mason mysteries) to write many of his stories. He supposedly had wheels for everything from the major plot, to the types of minor characters, to the actual resolution of the story.

So need a twist to the story? Spin the wheel! What kind of weapon to use? Spin the wheel! Need an extra couple of scenes? Spin the wheel of minor characters or sub-plots!

There is much speculation that Gardner’s Plot Wheels never existed anywhere but urban legend based upon a flippant comment about his prolific writing, but you can peek at what may be Erle Stanley Gardner’s plot wheels here at Teaching the American 20’s.

A different look at Gardner’s career can be found at thrillingdetective.com.

A modern take on the Plot Wheel can be found at the Apple Store in the form of a Children’s App called Story Wheel, where in you use ‘wheels’ to write your children’s story.