In the realm of storytelling, a MacGuffin is, per Wikipedia “a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place, or person. Other more abstract types include money, victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force. The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually, the MacGuffin is the central focus of the film in the first act and thereafter declines in importance. It may reappear at the climax of the story but sometimes is actually forgotten by the end of the story.”
Alfred Hitchcock was, for many, the master of the MacGuffin. Think of the statue in The Maltese Falcon for example.
As a fan of Hitchcock’s movies, I became aware of the idea of a MacGuffin well before I started writing novels, and I try to figure out if there’s a MacGuffin in any given story when I develop its outline. In other words, find an objective that draws the protagonists and antagonists along to a satisfying conclusion without really being important to the plot. However, up to this point, I’ve not published a story with a MacGuffin in the Hitchcock sense and I’d actually say that they’re not particularly common in sci-fi, especially military sci-fi, though one could argue about a couple of well known tales.
Right now, I’m almost 90,000 words into Howling Stars (Decker’s War Book 4) and therefore inching ever closer to the climax and last night it struck me out of the blue – Decker is pursuing a MacGuffin that’s almost exactly in line with the definition I quoted above. It’s a first for me. The realization came as I was formulating his first encounter with the object of his pursuit since I set things in motion more than 80,000 words ago. Of course, Decker’s War isn’t pure military sci-fi, when you get right down to it. It’s a mixture of military, thriller, espionage and sci-fi.
I’m pretty pleased with myself right now. Though Decker’s single-minded quest propels the story along, what he does and sees along the way is the real development within the Decker’s War arc and further details his view of a Commonwealth sliding into tyranny. Thus, even if he never catches up to his MacGuffin, the events in the story and their effects on wider arc would remain the same. But have no fear, he will find the object of his pursuit as early as today or tomorrow, and it will come as a surprise. Or will it? Once you get to read it, come this November, you’ll know what I mean.