The name may have been coined (by Alfred Hitchcock) for the movies but it applies as well to books. What is a MacGuffin? An object (in a very broad sense — it can be a person) that is being sought, typically by more than one group, as a basic element to the plot. The statue in ‘The Maltese Falcon.’ The ring in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’
There can be more than one to a tale, of course, but we don’t want to dilute the plot and distract the reader. In a way, every tale has an object of a quest. Someone is always searching for something, even if it be as nebulous as ‘happiness.’ But that is not quite the same thing. Indeed, it might be argued that a ‘true’ MacGuffin is not intrinsic to the plot, has no meaning in and of itself. In that sense the falcon statue is a MacGuffin but the ‘one ring’ is not. In ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ those same characters would have done the same things if pursuing some other object. Not so in ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ where the ring and its power underlie the basic plot.
My own novels, of course, are not exceptions. In ‘The Eyes of the Wind,’ our protagonists are searching for four magical jewels — those could be seen as making up one MacGuffin, even if they are scattered to the four directions of the compass. In my shortly-to-be-released ‘The Crocodile’s Son,’ it is the kidnapped infant son of Qala, former Pirate Queen, who becomes the MacGuffin, with three different groups contending and sometimes cooperating in retrieving him. And in the epic ‘Donzalo’s Destiny,’ Donzalo himself is definitely the objective, to be assassinated or saved.
Those are fairly obvious uses of the MacGuffin. It is more subtle in the Malvern/Mora novels, my other fantasy series. Hito, in ‘God of Rain,’ is off searching for a source of metal. This is but a pretext to get him out where adventures can occur and not really intrinsic to the plot. We could have used another pretext. In a way, that is the truest form of MacGuffin, purely a device to get the action going. It is not actually essential to the story and he could have been off looking for something else entirely.
Malvern, in the trilogy in which he stars, is mostly seeking knowledge, seeking to unravel the mystery of the strange world into which he has been thrown. But there is also the woman who becomes his wife, and who is bound up in the whole thing to a considerable extent. He does pursue her quite a bit; indeed, in the second book, ‘Valley of Visions,’ he follows her and her kidnappers over the mountains and then has to vie for her with the powerful ruler of the land beyond. So Rahaita, the Mora woman, serves as a MacGuffin of sorts, at least in that novel.
But how about the more mainstream books (ostensibly ‘crime’ novels) of my Cully Beach series? One might think at first there are no physical MacGuffins in ‘Shaper.’ But the heroin shipment that never shows up until near the end is pretty much a MacGuffin. Most of the actions, most of the plot, really depends on the plan to smuggle in drugs through the motel Shaper’s girlfriend manages. In the sequel, ‘Waves,’ it is missing evidence — that one is fairly obvious. To some degree, these are intrinsic to the story. It would not be the same if some other objects were being pursued, but I do not think the plots would have needed to be changed all that much.
We don’t think of MacGuffins that much, either as reader or writer, as they are somewhat woven into the fabric of any story. The author should be able to recognize when one is being employed, however, and whether it makes sense. An unbelievable MacGuffin will undermine the plot before it is even begun. We have to recognize why it is desired, why it is being contended for. If there is no good and logical reason, well, then we had best find a better MacGuffin!