Objects of Mystery and Intrigue

5-6 Minute Read

A few years ago, the Physics Department at UPEI decided to part ways with some of its antiquated equipment. The pile in the hall included some impressive looking devices, encased in wooden boxes, and decorated with no shortage of dials, meters, and fuses. All of these, presumably, did important things at one time.

In an act of imaginative recycling, a good share of these objects were swooped up by the director of the theatre program, who had no difficulty imagining their place on the stage. I was playing with one of these devices not too long ago when it occurred to me it would make the perfect MacGuffin for a creative writing exercise.

A MacGuffin, if you’re not familiar with the term, is an object or device that’s used to build intrigue and to advance a plot. Typically, this object is valued for its either power or its personal significance–or for both–and pursuing it provides a blend of suspense and intrigue that often proves popular with audiences. 

It’s worth keeping in mind that not every object that appears in a story is necessarily a MacGuffin. In the strictest sense, the term is reserved for objects whose value is tied directly to their potential to advance a plot, but that don’t otherwise have much value, or that may not even make much sense. In other words, they’re fabrications of convenience that storytellers introduce to get around narrative problems.

And yet, you’ll often hear the term MacGuffin used more generally to describe most every story with an object at its centre, whether it be Lord of the Rings or Guardians of the Galaxy. It is, in this sense, both a storytelling term and a broader category of stories.

Semantics aside, experimenting with MacGuffins can be a useful way of discovering a character’s motivations, even if you have no desire to write popular fiction or the screenplay for a blockbuster film.

When you think about it, all of us have certain objects that we cherish, and as we reflect on what these items mean to us, and how they arrive in our lives, our own life stories come more fully into view. Likewise, if you can figure out what a character cherishes, you’re that much more likely to understand what that character needs and desires, and you’ll be better able to equip them with some sense of psychological depth.

Getting Started

If you’re an instructor, and you’re using this exercise in a class, you’ll need:

One object or device whose purpose is not readily obvious

A centrally located table, if your classroom doesn’t already have one

The usual writing implements

A group of keen and curious students

Part I:

I usually start this exercise by situating the object so that all my students can easily inspect it, and then I make the following declaration:

Placed before you is an object of immense power. Tell me what it is, who wants it, and why.

Part II:

Once the students have written for ten to fifteen minutes, I ask them to write a scene in which one character explains to another what the device does. I remind them that characters can, at times, be unreliable, as their motives shape what they decide to share with others. This twist prevents the scene from becoming purely expository, as the character who’s listening has to decide if the explanation is true, partially true, or misleading.

One Last Thing

If you look at the history of McGuffins in popular cinema, you’ll quickly notice that many of these movies are hugely problematic, as the objects of interest are quite literally stolen from non-western cultures the world over. These acts of theft are made worse by the various ways in which white protagonists are depicted as heroic for having escaped their villainized pursuers. What these scenes ultimately communicate is a sense of western superiority and entitlement that, sadly, remains all too familiar.

While many readers have enjoyed tales about lost treasure, such enjoyment should never come at anyone’s expense, so if you do decide to incorporate a treasured object into your story, think carefully about its origins, as well as what these ultimately communicate to your audience.

Looking Back

Introducing a compelling object into your story can be a great way to advance a plot, generate conflict, or add new dimensions to your characters. And provided you do so thoughtfully, and ethically, a great many readers will love you for it.

In our next warm up activity, we’ll try out a variation of this exercise that enables us to probe a character’s identity in relation to an object that comes unexpectedly into their possession.




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Cold Opens Copyright © 2022 by Dave Hickey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book