Friday, October 23, 2009

The MacGuffin and the Elephant

Today's subject: The MacGuffin.  Birthed in the movies and made famous by Hitchcock, The MacGuffin is the thing in a story that the characters care about.  It doesn't matter what the object is -- whether it is a diamond or the contents of a case, it doesn't do anything -- it is merely the dense center of gravity around which the characters and action swirl.

It is possibly the oldest and cheapest plot device.  However, it can and has been used brilliantly time and again, and can be extrapolated thus:

Creating a conflict complex enough to sustain tension throughout a novel can be difficult, while real-life problems often seem too complex to inspire.  Try finding one fundamental problem in the story you want to tell.  Once you can identify it, consider its causes and effects and let those bud fractally into secondary and tertiary problems.  Pick only the most interesting growths and hack off the rest.  Now it is like the elephant in the old parable.  You lead your characters to it blindfolded and let each feel a small part of it.  Some will think they are touching trees, others a snake, others a brush, and maybe one of them peeks.  The nature of your characters will determine how they respond.  Story ensues.

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