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Another Storytelling Device to Know

This article is about a storytelling device known as a macguffin. As you enjoy reading about how film directors and writers have used macguffins for years, possibly in some of your favorite movies, try to keep track of how many times I use the word “good” in the article below.

A Storytelling Device To Move the Plot Forward

A macguffin is described as a plot device that propels a story forward. A macguffin can be an object that is valuable in and of itself such as a diamond, an artifact or an expensive piece of artwork. Or the macguffin can be valuable in that it is an object or person of interest, such as something containing valuable data or secrets. A macguffin can also be an ideal such as power, love, or glory.

Examples of Macguffin

Alfred Hitchcock made the term famous and employed it often in his suspense thrillers. He is quoted as saying,

“We call it the ‘MacGuffin.’ It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” – Alfred Hitchcock

In North By Northwest, actor Cary Grant plays a falsely identified “George Kaplan” and is chased throughout the movie in a case of mistaken identity. Midway through the movie we briefly learn that ‘government secrets on microfilm’ are the reason for the pursuit. (This blog details a list of macguffins used by Hitchcock, if you are interested in how Hitchcock became a master of this storytelling device in his films.)

For a funny, quick look at a macguffin in action, watch the Abbott and Costello skit that employs a macguffin as a pretext for the hilarity that follows about borrowing money.

View on YouTube: “Abbott and Costello “Loan me $.50

A Storytelling Device for a Bigger Purpose

While the examples above serve to entertain us, understanding what a macguffin is and how it functions can be useful for leaders, or anyone seeking to raise their awareness about how story and the media impact our perceptions and journey to success. Many successful leaders and sales people already use the macguffin on a day-to-day basis, but may not realize that there is a name for the technique they are employing. If you learn to recognize macguffins, you will open yourself up to getting a better read on any situation and how to handle it.

Perhaps the most important thing to know is that the object (macguffin) in and of itself isn’t important; it is the attainment of what that the macguffin represents that matters. The macguffin often diminishes in importance over the course of the story or film – its sole function is to propel the plot forward.

If the story is told well and in a compelling manner, it rarely matters what the macguffin is as long as it connects the dots of the story.  In fact, the human mind is designed to make or find a connection and will seek to connect the dots in order to make sense of a story.  Hitchcock understood this well and was a master storyteller. He is recorded describing the macguffin as ‘nothing’ – it is important to the characters, driving them forward, but the audience doesn’t care:

McGuffin by Hitchcock from Isaac Niemand on Vimeo.

Spotting the Storytelling Device – Find the Macguffin

By the way, did you spot the macguffin in this article?

(Did you keep track of how many times I used the word good in the above article?)


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© Joe Caruso and Caruso Leadership, 2018. Reprints available with permission.

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