We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.

How We Make Money

We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently from our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What is a Macguffin?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 17, 2024
Our promise to you
WiseGeek is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At WiseGeek, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

A Macguffin, or Mcguffin, is a literary device used frequently in stories, plays and films. It is usually an object that motivates the actions of characters, while having little actual meaning to the plot. The term was coined by director Alfred Hitchcock, and has become a common description for the plot device.

Often, a Macguffin will be central to thrillers, spy stories and adventures. The object usually has power or significance of some kind that may be mystical or practical. Most of the characters in the story will base their actions on the Macguffin, although the final result of their actions will usually be of greater significance than actually getting, controlling, or destroying the Macguffin.

Alfred Hitchcock first explained the term at a 1939 lecture to students at Columbia University. According to him, it appears in many stories but particularly in spy and thriller tales. He later clarified his remarks, saying that the device is actually nothing at all. A Macguffin’s purpose is to motivate the characters into action, and its own powers are rarely executed to much effect.

Examples of the use of the plot device are numerous particularly in movies. The Indiana Jones films frequently revolve around a Macguffin, like the ark of the covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the crystal skull in the 2008 installment, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Other frequently cited examples are the statue in The Maltese Falcon and the Green Destiny sword in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Occasionally, Macguffins can actually be characters in the story. Director George Lucas refers to the robot R2-D2 as a Macguffin in the film Star Wars, as many characters spend the entire first film searching for him. Similarly, the search for Private James Francis Ryan propels much of the action in Saving Private Ryan, making the character a device of sorts.

There are no rules on how many Macguffins can be active in a film at one time, although multiple Macguffins are usually only found in farce or broad comedy styles. In the recent hit Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the letters of marque, chest of Davy Jones, and Jack’s compass are all consistently used as motivating items that end up being fairly unimportant. Perhaps the winner of “most Macguffins in one film” goes to the 1970s comedy What’s Up, Doc? in which the large cast of characters spends the entire film chasing four identical suitcases, each with different contents.

Macguffins provide a great way to keep a plot moving forward, but writers must be aware of the possible traps. If you spend too much time on the device, it can become the center of the plot instead of the main motivating object. As Jon Turtletaub, director of the popular National Treasure films pointed out, by the time you find the treasure, something else should be more important. The relationships, gains, losses and discoveries made by the characters on their journey should always be more important and affecting than the final discovery of the wily Macguffin.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis , Writer
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGeek. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

Discussion Comments

By anon354893 — On Nov 12, 2013

So, second place for "most Maguffins in a film" must surely go to "The Double Maguffin?" --David N. - Mazomanie, Wis.

By anon86212 — On May 24, 2010

To anon42160: Yes, in the film industry the object is referred to as the MacGuffin.

By anon42160 — On Aug 19, 2009

Does the director or do the actors actually refer to the item as a "McGuffin?"

By anon42103 — On Aug 19, 2009

Often I already know about the subject of these postings, but this is one I didn't know by name although I knew of the use of them in movies. I am always eager and willing to learn. If I live long enough, perhaps I will become educated and informed.

Donald W. Bales, M.D. retired

Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis


With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
Learn more
WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.