Once Upon a Front Room…
We begin this week with one of my favourite little bits of Urban Legend, the reason for sharing it will, I hope, become clear later in the post.
Once upon a time, a young lady, having found a man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with, brought her boyfriend home to meet her grandmother. They all sat in the grandmother’s front room, drinking tea and eating cake, as is traditional, when the young man’s attention was caught by something on the lady’s mantlepiece. Eventually his distraction was noticed and he was asked what he was looking at.
“Mrs Wilson?” He asked instead. “Mrs Wilson, where did you get that object from?”
He gestured as he spoke to a curious metal item on the mantlepiece, all strange shapes melded together. The old lady beamed at him, pleased that he had noticed her treasure.
“Oh well now, dear, I’ve had that for years! My sons brought it home from me when they were very young, why it must have been over fifty years ago now! I polish it every Saturday, you know, got to keep it nice.”
The young man nodded, still distracted and staring at the object.
“Mrs Wilson,” he asked carefully. “Mrs Wilson, do you know what it is?”
She shook her head, unconcerned but curious about the man’s interest.
“No, dear, I’ve no idea. The boys didn’t know either – found it in a field, they said they did.”
“Hmmm…” The young man nodded. “Would you mind very much, Mrs Wilson, if I called someone out to come and look at it? I think they’d be very interested.”
It was agreed that this would be acceptable. The young man called a friend in the army who came out an identified the object promptly … as an unexploded bomb from the Second World War. It had sat safely on this lady’s mantlepiece for over half a century, polished and prized and completely unidentified.
The end of the story is that the whole family trooped out to watch from a safe distance as the army exploded the bomb properly, and that it left a – well! – a very sizable crater indeed for such a small object! The young man was very popular in the family after all that, as you may imagine!
The Evil Overlord List
For those innocent young ones among us, way back in the early 1990s, a man called Peter Anspach began to put together what would become known as The Evil Overlord List. It is a magical thing which I recommend all writers should read at least once because it points to many recurring flaws in the plans of, well, Evil Overlords in fiction. Trying to avoid these recurring issues may be hard, but if you’re looking for a challenge then this is a great start. Also it is hilarious!
I bring Peter Anspach’s mighty work up now because I reread it a few months ago and it got me thinking…
There are several items upon it which definitely inspired a certain mindset for this post, specifically:
#5. The artefact which is the source of my power will not be kept on the Mountain of Despair beyond the River of Fire guarded by the Dragons of Eternity. It will be in my safe-deposit box. The same applies to the object which is my one weakness.
#49. If I learn the whereabouts of the one artefact which can destroy me, I will not send all my troops out to seize it. Instead I will send them out to seize something else and quietly put a Want-Ad in the local paper.
The Weaknesses of MacGuffins
The term ‘MacGuffin’ was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock to describe certain plot-relevant objects, although the item in question has been around for far longer than that. The Holy Grail is often considered among the first MacGuffins in literature. In reference to movies about spies, Hitchcock said a MacGuffin was: “The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.”
I should note that George Lucas disagrees, and feels that the audience should be made to care just as much about the MacGuffin as the characters, but I freely admit that I lean towards Hitchcock in this matter. If King Arthur’s men find the Holy Grail, I may be happy for them, assuming the plot has made me care about them, but I myself will not be affected either way, and on some level even in a well-told tale, I will always be aware of this. The Holy Grail shall become mine in any way.
Well-used MacGuffins often set the plot in motion in the first act and then should decrease in importance because the plot and the characters are increasingly the focus for the audience. Yes, the Holy Grail may be why the Knights of the Round Table go off on this quest, but the adventures and mis-adventures they encounter along the way should be more interesting than ‘Find the Thingy’. Yes, trying to get to the Holy Grail before the Bad Knights may be a source for conflict, but the characters need to be distinct and interesting, and what choices they make in search for their goal should be more interesting than ‘Will they find the Thingy before the others do?’
A badly-used MacGuffin needs to keep reasserting its importance to the plot all the way through because apparently there wasn’t something more interesting going on. If you are concerned about your MacGuffin, check back through your work and see if you find a strikingly high number of times someones cries ‘Where’s the [Thingy]?!’, ‘What have you done with the [Thingy]?’, [I have to get to the [Thingy]!’ Also check for conflict-based cries of ‘He has the [Thingy]!’, ‘Don’t use the [Thingy]!’ ‘No! If we do that then they will have the [Thingy]!’
MacGuffins have had a bit of a rough reception in recent years, because they have mostly been used poorly by writers and especially films to create and drive narrative tension as easily as possible. They seem unaware though that the tension these MacGuffins bring (that of two or more people wanting the Thingy) is very shallow, and since I, as the audience, do not want the Thingy, you can imagine how much I Do Not Care.
Sensing this, writers have taken, again often in films as they are such a visual medium, to placing MacGuffins in increasingly iconic but ludicrous places. No seriously, why is the Thingy hidden behind a trap door on the top of St Paul’s Cathedral? How did they get it there without someone noticing and do you have any idea how often maintenance and repair work has to be done on that roof? How have the workmen not found it, or at least accidentally bricked up the secret entrance because they didn’t know about it? What, is every set of contractors given a briefing so that they don’t mess with the Thingy before starting work? And it’s still a secret?
Obviously, as writers we could try and write stories without such devices, but as such a staple of drama in stories for so long, that’s a lot harder to manage than to say. It would be like saying ‘right, I shall now write a series without any romance.’ Or ‘I shall write a book without a villain.’ These things are possible, and there are some great works that manage this without any apparent effort, but they are few and far between for a reason.
Playing ‘Hide the Whatsit’
Rather than discarding MacGuffins in all their iterations – which would be sad, as it’s not their fault they are poorly used – in this post we shall consider some more … mundane places to hide your MacGuffin, places in which it is definitely conceivable that an item could have been hidden for long stretches of time.
Because I believe firmly that the interesting thing about MacGuffins is often simply the mystery of working out where they are and/or what they look like. Many a good story has rested on the conceit that even if the characters have heard of a magical object of legend, they still won’t know what it looks like. Also, because objects can move around and change hands a lot over the years, they can end up in some very unexpected places. And I don’t mean, in the abandoned pagan temple half-buried by a landslide, unexpected. Like, in this chap’s garage because he picked it up at a car-boot for £4.50 and then forgot about it because it didn’t fit in the alcove like he wanted it to, unexpected.
Your readers won’t see it coming, which will always be a nice change, and you’ll be forced, as a writer, to be more creative with your plot to accommodate this lack of daring chase scene up the Eiffel Tower in pursuit of the Do-Hickey that simply could not still be there after six decades without being disturbed by now.
This harkens back to the WWII bomb sitting safely in a woman’s front room for fifty years. (See, I told you this would all make sense!) No one knew it was there, but it was quite safe, and there was no need to hide it in the darkest depths of the land either.
Here’s some suggestions to start you off:
Great Auntie Freda’s Display Case
Auntie Freda’s lived in that house for nearly seventy years, and that display case hasn’t moved in all that time. You’ve visited every month since you were little, and you might think you know what’s in there, it’s in plain sight and all, but come to think of it, have you really looked inside it since you were six? No, no you have not! That slightly tatty box at the back might as well have the Philosopher’s Stone in it for all you know! Auntie Freda herself probably doesn’t know what all of it actually is, although she’d be able to tell you where most of it came from if you asked her. But only if you asked her though, you’d not be interested in hearing the stories of an old lady now, would you, dear?
Especially good for hiding small and shiny items, which might otherwise catch people’s eyes. Anything that’s got a serious ‘I am important to the plot and the universe’ vibe *ahem-Infinity Stones equivalent-ahem* will be utterly disguised by a mundane setting and a surrounding environment of sentimental tat.
Old Mr Wilson’s Shed
Maybe not all that suitable for perishable items, but Mr Wilson has used that shed as a covert place to stick anything he didn’t want his Good Lady Wife to find for years, but his memory’s not what it once was. Stick The Sacred Stone behind the half-full tins of paint in colours that don’t match any walls in the house any more, no one’s going to find it.
Or maybe it’s an old key that’s hanging on a hook behind the door? Again, you’re not going to look twice at it, are you? No one knows what all the random keys once belonged to, do they? Frankly anything small and vaguely metallic can be kept perfectly safe in an old tool box, or stuck near the bottom of a jar of screws? Like garages, only more so, sheds are the last descendants of an alchemists’ laboratory, and should always be approached with the same level of caution. One never knows what secrets one may stumble across, if due care is not given…
The Bottom of Someone’s Filing Tray
OK, you might think this is a silly one, but think about it. No one ever gets to the bottom of their filing tray. Ever. Even with the best will in the world, you get two-thirds of the way down, you run out of energy and you give up. Then you wait until it fills up again so far that it’s threatening to slide and topple all over the floor and you start filing again. And of course you get two-thirds through it and run out of steam, and…
Yep, so let’s be honest, you haven’t seen what’s at the bottom of that tray in forever, have you? This will not, of course, work for large or round MacGuffins, but if you ever need to hide the map to the secret treasure, or the password to the bank vault, or anything that’s paper-based, then the bottom of a filing tray is a perfectly good place to start!
Charity Shops and Car Boot Sales
Neil Gaiman (of course) has already shown the possibilities here with a short story about an elderly lady finding the Holy Grail in the Oxfam Shop on her way back from picking up her pension. It’s a hilarious story, especially when Sir Galahad turns up, you should read it.
People pick up random things they can’t identify all the time from car boot sales and such, just because it’s cheap and quirky and it might look nice in that corner of the bedroom. And the people selling things in car boot sales are often clearing their homes of stuff they don’t need, or getting rid of bits and pieces after a relative has died. If Great Aunt Freda dies, Cousin Errol isn’t going to know or care about anything much in her display case, is he? It’s mostly all just random souvenirs from holidays only she remembered, isn’t it? He’ll just want to get a little bit of money from it to help with the legal fees, and that’s all.
You could even take the idea to another level and have Cousin Errol call in a day-time tv show like Cash-in-the-Attic, or have the car boot feature on Bargain Hunt, and have a member of the Search Team just happen to catch sight of the Thingy when the show airs. So the reader gets a glimpse of the Thingy, but now we need to track it down again. To arms!
A National Trust Property
I have been convinced for years now that the National Trust exists entirely for the purpose of hiding and guarding Britain’s Magical Items, and no one has found a good reason yet to show that it isn’t!
The usual National Trust property combines everything that is perfect for hiding a MacGuffin. It’s bureaucratic enough that no one will question when or from where an item has come from, so long as the paperwork looks genuine. It’s small and homely enough that random items can be dismissed as an old curio of once-sentimental value. It’s probably been heard of by very, very few people, unlike something like the Tate Modern or the British Museum, which everyone has heard of and will think to look in. It’s guarded by Little Old Ladies – no, really, have you stepped across the line in a NT house? Those women will eat you up alive and make you apologise afterwards for causing them the trouble. They can glare a man into submission at a hundred yards. Never displease a Little Old Lady who has literally got all day to make you suffer appropriately!
Think of them as the modern equivalent of the knight with the sacred vow to watch over an item for all eternity (you know the one). The only flaw they might have is if you bribe them with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Keep an eye out for that.
Side-Note – Transporting One’s MacGuffin
Of course, once your Fearless Heroes have finally acquired their MacGuffin, they need to take it somewhere. But how?
Ok, don’t panic, and don’t reach for the ‘I must epic-i-fy this’ button! This is really quite simple.
I mean, you could call in Special-Ops, and move under the cover of night. You could do that. I have no doubt that it would be very suspense-full and the villains will doubtless have a spy in the camp anyway, and they will track your caravan of ‘covert’ cars down easily enough and give chase…
Orrrr you could just take on the train with you.
I recently bought my mother a Christmas present (I know I’m early, but it was perfect, and don’t worry, she doesn’t read this blog!) The thing was taller than I am, but thin, and I wrapped it up in bubble-wrap, and just walked onto the train. You know the best part? It didn’t matter how weird it looked, or how many side-long looks I received, no one – and I do mean no one – actually asked any questions whatsoever. Because of course they didn’t. Perish the thought!
The best part of this, though?
Even if your villains do give chase, all you have to do is shout ‘Oi! That’s my bag you’re running off with!’ and the entire carriage will leap to your aid as a distraction from the tedious reality of being on a train for two hours! It’s perfect!
Basically MacGuffins, and the searching for and acquisition thereof are a staple of stories for longer than writing has been around. They are so long-lived for a reason and just discarding them would be a huge shame. Still they are boring to the audience when writers forget that, like all storytelling elements, they are not intrinsically interesting without characters and plots that are interesting around them.
So don’t be boring with your MacGuffin and assume that a scary castle location will save it. Have a bit of fun with the concept! Your readers will thank you for it later…
Liked this post? Let me know in the comments where you would hide your MacGuffins!
And check out the rest of the Chronicles in Creation series for more weird and wacky ideas what writing than you could possibly wish for!