Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Please don’t tell your audience all about the MacGuffin

Back in 1939 Alfred Hitchcock described the MacGuffin: a story element that the film characters are extremely interested in, but the audience is not. In a crime story it may be a necklace with jewels. In his 1935 spy film, The 39 Steps, it was the plans for an airplane engine. (You can watch the entire film on YouTube. After about 47 minutes the main character gives an impromptu speech about a political candidate he hasn’t previously met.)  

Recently, in The Fiction Writer’s Handbook (2012), Shelly Lowenkopf describes a MacGuffin as:

“A DEVICE or object that appears germane to the PLOT of a NOVEL or SHORT STORY but which has little to do with the OUTCOME; a DISCOVERY such as a map, a letter, a weapon that serves as a plausible distraction from the THROUGHLINE of a story.”   

When writing a speech, we need to step back and ask ourselves whether all the details we have included really are necessary for telling our story.

In the 1968 book, The Making of Star Trek there was an excellent example of irrelevant details. A script draft had used two pages of detailed jargon to describe exactly how to turn around the Starship Enterprise. The edited version had Captain Kirk shout just two words:

 “Reverse course!”

The MacGuffin was derived from an image of a leprachaun.

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