Literary Jargon – McGuffin
When I was at the RNA conference over the weekend, I met a lady who was not a writer, but was just there to accompany a relative. She made the point that there was a lot of jargon and acronyms being bandied about over the weekend, and she had no idea what all of it meant.
It occurred to me that we do that a lot, in any group. My closest friends and I have a code and mythology that means nothing to anyone else, but which as friends we only have to use to open up a discussion of every good time we’ve ever had. Families also have their own different words and phrases that have built up over the years.
When I first trained to work in the voluntary sector as an advisor, I was told about how jargon can be used as a means of excluding others and making them feel like outsiders. Of course, groups of family and friends should have their own mythology. That’s what makes the friendship/relationship. But for something like writing, especially new writers, we perhaps need to start breaking through this jargon and be more inclusive. So this is the first in an occasional series on literary jargon.
I thought I’d start with a word that I dropped into my talk on Saturday (I did, however, define it at the time). That word is McGuffin. What on earth is a McGuffin, I hear you cry. Chances are you already know, but for those who don’t, a McGuffin is an object which drives a story but which, of itself, is not that important. Its only importance is in how it makes the characters react.
The McGuffin I was talking about at the conference was the ‘stone’ in the film Romancing the Stone. The fact is that it could have been any precious jewel or artefact, which the bad guys wanted and which the good guys were trying to stop them getting.
There have been some notable McGuffins in films and literature, and I’m going to share some with you to give you an idea of the scope of the McGuffin.
In the film, The Raiders of the Lost Ark, the McGuffin is the Ark of the Covenant. This could have been any mystical religious object that the Nazis wanted to use to rule the world and that Indiana Jones wanted to put in a museum, out of harm’s way. What mattered was the journey they took to find it.
In The Lady Vanishes (the original Hitchcock version rather than the dire Cybill Shepherd version), one of the McGuffins is not a physical object at all. It’s the melody that the elderly lady, Miss Froy, carries in her head, which is supposed to be an important clause in a treaty to stop a war (I’m guessing they were out of pigeons). But this could easily have been a message hidden on a microdot or a bit of paper. Miss Froy could also be considered a McGuffin as she disappears for most of the film, and her disappearance is what drives the plot and puts Iris and Gilbert in danger, but also brings them together as a couple.
Hitchcock was the king of the McGuffin and I believe that he actually invented the term. His notable McGuffins include: A message on a piece of paper or whispered into the hero’s ear in the two different versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Then we have the steps in the eponymous The 39 Steps, and the proof that they’re a McGuffin shows in that the whereabouts of the said steps, and the reasons Richard Hannay and the Bad Guys look for them changes in each filmed version (My own favourite version is the one starring Rupert Penry-Jones).
In the film Gaslight, the McGuffin is a set of jewels that were hidden in the house in which the heroine and her husband came to live after her marriage. It is the husband’s obsession with these jewels that drives the plot and almost drives the heroine out of her mind as he tries to find a way to have her sectioned so she is out of the way.
In Jane Eyre, the McGuffin is a person; Rochester’s insane wife, Bertha. Though we hardly ever see her, she is the catalyst for everything Rochester does, and for Jane’s suffering from the moment she agrees to marry Rochester. But Bertha could have been Rochester’s mad mother, brother, sister, daughter, though for plot purposes, he was stuck with her as one could not divorce an insane spouse in those days. Or she could have been any other secret he had which prevented him from truly committing to Jane.
Similarly, in Rebecca, it is the hero’s dead wife, who is the McGuffin. In fact, so important a McGuffin is she, that the 2nd Mrs De Winter is not even given a first name, so that Rebecca’s name dominates everything. Again, as with Jane Eyre, Rebecca De Winter could have been exchanged to be any dark secret that prevented the hero from truly moving on with his life.
Naturally I love using McGuffins in my own novels. In True Companion, the McGuffin is some weapons designs hidden somewhere (I’m not telling you, you’ll have to find out!). In The Secret of Helena’s Bay, it’s a set of rubies (and I even threw some Nazis in for good measure). In A Collector of Hearts, it’s a heart-shaped necklace, which the heroine is accused of stealing. But she could have been accused of stealing anything just as precious and the story would still have worked.
That is the point of a McGuffin. You can easily swap it with another, similar object or person, and it would still perform the same task. So have fun playing around with them, and see where the story takes you. Just remember, that the McGuffin must drive the characters, so there has to be a solid reason for it existing, even if it is interchangeable.
What literary related jargon has you scratching your head? Don’t be afraid to leave a message in the comments, and I’ll do my best to clear the fog.