THE ACT of storytelling is no easy task. To polish stories to perfection, writers employ different techniques to deliver their intriguing narratives. Among a range of narrative devices available, the plot device has been a favored tool among many storytellers. Simply put, a plot device refers to any element in a story that drives the plot forward*. While misuse of such technique can be regarded as cliché or tacky, under the right condition, plot devices can significantly transform the overall storyline to be all the more poignant and compelling.
The MacGuffin is one of the most beloved and renowned plot devices. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a MacGuffin is any object, event, or character that propels the plot forward though it has no significant value in the actual narrative. While the MacGuffin may serve as the initial drive of the story, it fades in importance as the plot progresses towards the end. In fact, the MacGuffin may be replaced with any other object as it does not change the outcome of the story. True to its definition, even the name “MacGuffin” is a MacGuffin in itself, with the word having no intrinsic meaning.
The term was popularized by movie director Alfred Hitchcock, who is known for utilizing this specific plot device in most of his movies. To Hitchcock, the nature of the MacGuffin should be something that is incredibly important to the characters but vague and meaningless to the audience**. Hitchcock’s MacGuffin is also referred to as “pure MacGuffins.” An example of Hitchcock’s “pure MacGuffin” is the Iron Throne from the TV show Game of Thrones. In the series, the titular throne serves as the collective symbol of power, for which the protagonists brutally fight over. Forged from 1,000 swords, the Iron Throne boasted an ominous presence at the start of the series, making an appearance in almost every episode. However, as the saga continued, the Iron Throne faded in its significance as viewers became more engrossed in the plot and characters, developments of which were ironically initiated by the MacGuffin. True to its role as the MacGuffin, the throne gets destroyed in the end of the series, even before the main character actually gets to sit on it and claim all the power.
George Lucas, the director renowned for the Star Wars franchise, offers a different definition of the MacGuffin: a powerful medium that propels the story forward and captivates both the characters and the viewers***. An example of Lucas’s MacGuffin can be found in his movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the film, the Ark of the Covenant, a Biblical artifact containing the Ten Commandments, is sought after by the Nazis, who believe that it will grant their army invincibility. Our protagonist, Indiana Jones, sets upon a mission to stop their plan, only to fail as his enemies eventually get hold of the Ark before him. Much to the surprise of both Jones and the audience, the Nazis are killed at the very moment they open the Ark, displaying one of the most gruesome deaths in cinema history. At this point, viewers come to the realization that the Ark was merely a MacGuffin, despite the time they spent chasing after it with Indiana Jones.
Deus ex machina
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines deus ex machina as “god from the machine,” referring to a technique in Ancient Greek theater in which the actors who played gods were lowered down to the stages by mechanical cranes. Derived from this practice, deus ex machina is a plot device that refers to an improbable situation, object or event that resolves a seemingly unsolvable problem****. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, in Ancient Greek plays, the appearance of gods meant a resolution to a conflict or the conclusion of the story. In the same fashion, deus ex machina in modern literature and film is used to carry the narrative to its ending.
H.G. Wells demonstrates a classic example of deus ex machina in his book, The War of the Worlds. In Wells’ novel, the Martians invade Earth due to a shortage of resources in their native planet. Upon arrival, the Martians launch attacks on Earth with superior weapons and highly advanced technology, decimating every living being standing in their path. Despite the brave efforts of the British Army, the Martians prevail and roam the Earth unhindered. As the survivors resort to fleeing underground, everything seems lost without a trace of hope left for humanity. Miraculously, the invasion is met with an abrupt conclusion as earthly pathogens annihilate the entire Martian fleet.
In the silver screen, the 1978 film Superman portrays one of the most notorious deus ex machina moments. Superman, who is gifted with super strength and other abilities, serve as the protector of mankind. However, amidst his efforts to stop the villain from launching nuclear missiles to the East and West Coasts of the United States, he manages to stop only one of the missiles from explosion. As a result, Superman fails to save his lover Lois Lane, who loses her life as she falls into a crevice caused by the missile. Grieving the loss of his lover, Superman decides to fly around Earth to reverse the timeline back to just a few minutes before her death. Concluding the story with a happy ending, Superman’s ability to time travel perfectly adopts deus ex machina. However, due to its convenience and being an easy way out in closing the narrative, the plot device is often criticized as sloppy writing*****, earning its title as one of the most infamous plot devices prone to misuse.
The red herring is a plot device used to distract the readers and audience away from the significant details, misleading them to a false conclusion. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term “red herring” is derived from the practice of using smoked, dried herring to train hunting dogs. The red herring is often used in genres such as mystery, horror and crime, in which the readers and audience engage in the search for the culprit or cause of the problem along with the protagonist.
J.K. Rowling utilizes the red herring as a plot device in her novel, deliberately misleading the readers to elevate the level of suspense, only to catch them by surprise with a twist further down the story. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Sirius Black is introduced as a convicted murderer who escaped from prison to claim Harry Potter as his next victim. As the plot thickens, the appearance of ominous creatures called Dementors and incessant rumors of Black’s crimes convince Harry and the readers that Black is indeed a dangerous man. However, when Harry finally confronts Black, he turns out to be Harry’s godfather who has been framed for crimes that he had not committed. In fact, the actual culprit for the atrocities, Peter Pettigrew, is caught and revealed to have been hiding in plain sight in the form of a pet rat throughout the whole story.
Another instance of using a red herring as a plot device can be found in the movie Captain America: Civil War. The main villain in the film, Helmut Zemo, is responsible for bombing an official United Nations meeting in Vienna that results in heavy casualties. The superheroes chase down Zemo, who is then captured and detained. While all seems to end peacefully, Zemo makes a dramatic escape and threatens the heroes, declaring his plan to use super soldiers to continue his acts of terrorism. To stop Zemo’s evil plans, the heroes confront him, but surprisingly, they are faced with Zemo’s dead henchmen and a tragedy that turns the protagonists against each other. At this point, the audience realizes that Zemo was a red herring all along. Unlike the expected ending involving a final clash between the main characters and Zemo, the audience is left to watch their beloved heroes in a brutal and bitter brawl amongst themselves.
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An alien invasion stopped by bacteria, false clues that lead to the wrong culprit, and a seemingly significant artifact that does not mean anything in the end, all have one thing in common: they act as excellent plot devices. Whether it is improbable, is misleading, or essentially has no meaning, these narrative techniques give the plot an exciting momentum. So before you start obsessing over what everyone is chasing after, think again; it might just be another MacGuffin in disguise.
*Another Tale to Tell: Politics and Narrative in Postmodern Culture
**No Film School
*****“Ghosts in the Machina: Plotting in Chartist and Working-Class Fiction”