Quoted from Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”…
Jules raises his hand off the briefcase.
It’s all yours, Ringo.
Jules flips the locks and opens the case, revealing it to
Pumpkin but not to us. The same light SHINES from the case.
Pumpkin’s expression goes to amazement. Honey Bunny, across
the room, can’t see inside.
What is it? What is it?
(Spoken softly) Is that what I think it is?
JULES nods his head: “Yes.”
JULES nods his head: “Yes.”
Throughout the movie Pulp Fiction, characters have been influenced by a mysterious briefcase owned by the big crime boss Marcellus Wallace. This plain black object is found in the opening sequence when Vincent and Jules recover it from some bumbling criminals.
The briefcase is an example of a MacGuffin, sometimes spelled McGuffin or Maguffin. We know that it is important because bullets were exchanged and lives were lost in its recovery. We’ll settle on MacGuffin for the purposes of this short article.
So, what is it?
The answer is, it really doesn’t matter.
No, seriously. The simple briefcase is there for one purpose — to begin the story or plot. The audience doesn’t really care about the briefcase because they’re more interested in what the characters are doing.
Quentin Tarantino even pokes a little fun at the audience in the ending scene, excerpted above. When Jules opens the case and shows the contents to Ringo/Pumpkin, all we (the audience) knows is that the case is valuable and, now that it’s opened, it gives off a mysterious glow that takes everyone’s breath away. Now we want to know what is in the briefcase, but Jules slams it shut and wraps up the scene and the movie. We never find out what was the impetus of over two hours of craziness.
The joke was on us, which made the movie even more memorable.
MacGuffins have been around for a while. The concept can be seen in many old stories, such as the Holy Grail or a certain black bird in a Bogart movie. The purpose of a MacGuffin is to provide a method to get the plot rolling, and the object can be anything external. A big pile of cash or even vague concepts such as glory and honor can be used to begin the tale. The plot revolves around the characters, while the MacGuffin is really ignored for the most part once the story is kickstarted into high gear.
Alfred Hitchcock was well known to use this device to begin his movies starting back in The 39 Steps. Adventures and thrillers used MacGuffins extensively in order to have the story moving along as quickly as possible.
A MacGuffin is a little white lie that the audience or reader plays along with to get to the fun part of the journey. After all, a story about a briefcase would be rather boring, with it being worried about scuffs or how its hinges could use a spot of oil, thank you very much. The hand that holds the briefcase, however, can tell a thrilling and satisfying tale.
Nifty, so how does this help me as a writer?
MacGuffins were used often back in the days of pulp magazines because they helped to get the stories rolling immediately, especially for stories featuring well-established characters like Doc Savage, Man of Bronze or Craig Kennedy, Scientific Detective. Tarantino used it in Pulp Fiction, and George Lucas used it in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars. There was some object (briefcase, Ark of the Covenant, R2-D2) that had something important hidden inside. We had no idea what that hidden something was, only that it was important and that lots of folks died trying to keep it out of the hands of the enemy.
If you’re having issues getting your story rolling, consider having your character(s) getting caught up in a MacGuffin situation. Maybe someone slips something into their luggage. Perhaps they go to a trinket shop and accidentally buy the wrong paperweight to give to their kid back home. You could even do the old similar-briefcase accident where two folks run into each other and the spy gets the dirty socks. Once the bad folks realize their prize is missing the story starts to take off.
Does the MacGuffin have to remain hidden?
Not at all. It’s your choice. George Lucas reveals what was stored in R2-D2 for the climax of Star Wars: A New Hope. One of the best known MacGuffin movies is “The Maltese Falcon”, packed with some top-drawer acting talent driving an exceptional script. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do. The ending reveal is worthy of a sequel. I’d love to travel to Istanbul with the characters to see what kind of shenanigans they’d get into.
If it makes sense to show your readers if the MacGuffin was accurate and someone was able to gain fortune and glory, that would go a long way to give the audience a satisfying conclusion for your characters. You could always snatch away the prize like the Ark of the Covenant and bury it in a warehouse in Nevada.