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Also: McGuffin
an object, event, or character in a story that lacks intrinsic importance but serves to set and keep the plot in motion
Abused, Confused, & Misused Words by Mary Embree Copyright © 2007, 2013 by Mary Embree


An object in a work of fiction, especially in film, whose only purpose is to advance the plot.

[Popularized by Alfred Hitchcock and possibly coined by British screenwriter Angus MacPhail (1903-1962), after a joke about a MacGuffin, a nonexistent device for trapping lions (or tigers) in the Scottish Highlands, from the surname MacGuffin.]
Word History: Alfred Hitchcock popularized the word MacGuffin in screenwriting jargon to describe any object that advances plot, usually because the characters desire to acquire or protect it. One such example is the titular statuette in Hitchcock's film The Maltese Falcon. MacGuffin may have been coined by British screenwriter Angus MacPhail (1903-1962). The word is thought to be a reference to a joke. In one version of the joke, two people are riding on a train. When one asks the other what's inside a strange case, the owner of the mysterious case replies that inside is a MacGuffin. "What's a MacGuffin?" says the first person. The owner answers that it's a device for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands. "But," says the curious traveler, "There are no lions in the Scottish Highlands!" To which the owner says, "Well, then that's no MacGuffin!" (Some versions of the joke refer to tigers instead of lions.) MacGuffins are a common storytelling device. Further examples include the one ring in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, and the Holy Grail in numerous films and novels.
American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
ThesaurusAntonymsRelated WordsSynonymsLegend:
Noun1.MacGuffin - (film) a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot; "the McGuffin was a key element of Alfred Hitchcock's films"
plot element - a component or element of the plot of a story
cinema, film, celluloid - a medium that disseminates moving pictures; "theater pieces transferred to celluloid"; "this story would be good cinema"; "film coverage of sporting events"
Based on WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2012 Princeton University, Farlex Inc.