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The Search for the MacGuffin

A Writer’s Quest

By Rachel RobbinsPublished about a month ago 3 min read
Alfred Hitchcock - the master of the MacGuffin

"The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after, but the audience doesn't care." (Alfred Hitchcock).

Here I am again, sitting in front of my typewriter. I have a sharp suit and seamed stockings. I have a cigarette permanently at one side of my mouth and I drink whisky with my black coffee for lunch. I’ve got to keep up with the boys in the writing room.

I am a 1940s screen writer. And I’m on a roll. I’ve got a beautiful leading lady. She’s sassy. She can deliver lines like a machine gun and smoulder in the smoke. She’s trouble, but you’re going to fall for her anyway. Let’s call her Betsy, or Dianne, or Rose.

And my leading guy, well, he wears a suit like it’s nightwear. He hangs around on corners, keeping an eye on things. He’s smart. Real smart. Maybe too smart for his own good. He doesn’t go looking for trouble, but it turns up anyway, usually in red lipstick and a skin-tight dress. He is just a surname, Hart, Blade or Flint.

I’ve got the plot. There’s a quest. He needs something. She is the key to finding that something and along the way, there will be an ex-boyfriend getting in the way. There will be a gangster with a scar and his boss on the end of a phone line. There will be some schmuck who thinks she will love him. They all have to keep secrets from each other, because this is a dark world. This is a world where trusting someone gets you in trouble. Real trouble. Like with a gun in your face. Or a policeman at your door. Or a knife in your side.

It all hinges on that thing.

What thing?

That thing – you know the whatsit – that they are all searching for. The thing that might bring riches, stop a murder, provide safety, answer a question.

A sultry Ava Gardner

It’s a 1940s screenwriter quest. The search for the MacGuffin.

Cary Grant as leading man

I’ve learned from the best: Welles with Rosebud, Curtiz and the Exit Papers and from Hitchcock, the master of suspense, with ropes, money, the corpse, the secret. Their characters are always chasing something. Something that brings threats, danger, and an exhilarating climax. Characters are shaken out of complacency because of the MacGuffin.

But most importantly, the great directors and writers have taught me that the something they are chasing only matters to the protagonists. The audience are there to see a romance, an emotional arc, a chase. They want quick edits and a bumpy ride. They don’t care about the uranium in a wine bottle, or the contents of a suitcase, or the hollow statue. They want to see what the humans, that have been thrown together, are really made of. They want to see love, revenge, courage, sacrifice.

Priscilla Lane and Robert Cummings in Hitchcock's Saboteur

The MacGuffin is about the internal logic of the story. About the world-building. It is about motivation. The search for the MacGuffin is about the character of the characters.

They have to be striving for something – or there is no story.

It establishes the stakes of the narrative.

It connects various characters and plot strands

It offers mystery and intrigue for the first scenes.

And in the last scenes it can be the necklace thrown overboard, the suitcase that is never opened, the buried treasure that is never retrieved.

Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer

So, here I am. Rosie meets Flint. It is a grey cityscape. The rain hits the pavement and bounces in the street light. She is in a doorway.

“Hey,” she calls. Her voice is deep, husky and a little lost. She needs a light. The smoke curls between the two. After sixty seconds of tight dialogue she knows he is a loner down on his luck, needing some quick cash. And he knows that she is searching for the ring her ex-boyfriend stole. The inscription holds sentimental value….

Just know, this is not going to end well.

Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960)

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About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

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Comments (6)

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  • David Price28 days ago

    You learn something everyday, Mcguffin :)

  • Phil Flannery30 days ago

    Love it.

  • Vicki Lawana Trusselli about a month ago

    1940s scenario rocks

  • Raymond G. Taylorabout a month ago

    .. and if it doesn’t make TS I don’t know what will!

  • Raymond G. Taylorabout a month ago

    Gripping thought provoking and enlightening. Top writing and so well done Rachel. I think this earns you another whisky and black coffee.

  • Excellent and informative piece on the McGuffin , love that word and the construct

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