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08:25 am: Wright's Writing Corner: Guest Blogger Jordan McCollum on Suspence!
Hey folks!
Welcome fellow writer Jordan McCollum and her wonderful insights about that wonderful tool of the suspence writer, The MacGuffin:


The presence of suspense is . . . a feat and shows promise, since it indicates that the writer is writing more for the reader than for himself. (Noah Lukeman, The Plot Thickens, p. 120)


Suspense on a story level and tension on a scene level are both vital to creating a readable story. Tension compels readers to read a scene, while suspense keeps them hooked until the next scene. There are many things we can do to heighten and highlight the tension in our writing. One technique that has been used to great effect is to use something that doesn't matter at all, something that the reader doesn't care about.

How can something that doesn't matter make readers want to know more? Well, it's not entirely true that the reader doesn't care about this object—they care about it because our characters care about it very deeply. But, as Alfred Hitchcock put it, "the audience don't care" what it is (ah, those British collective nouns!).

Remember the last time you watched North by Northwest, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Mission Impossible 3? In all of these movies, at least one set of characters is searching for something. Do you remember what it was?

It's okay if you don't. Does it matter what it was? Would we root against the bad guys more if they were looking for the Holy Grail or the All-Powerful Reliquary of King David (something I just made up)? Would we have worried about the fate of the world any less if we knew what that rabbit's foot Ethan Hunt recovered really was?

The objects of these quests doesn't have intrinsic value. Raiders shows us this by sticking the Ark into government storage. MI3 shows us this by never even telling us what the rabbit's foot is—and drawing our attention to the fact that we don't know what it is.

These are all MacGuffins—objects that have little intrinsic importance except how they function for the plot. You can use a MacGuffin in your writing to help increase the tension and pull readers along through your story.

Finding a MacGuffin
Because it doesn't matter exactly what a MacGuffin is, sometimes it's best to go for the concrete, yet vague. The Maltese Falcon was a statuette, but "government secrets" or "the microfilm" are classics as well. I've made a MacGuffin generator using some classic and modern MacGuffins. Warpcore SF offers a sci-fi MacGuffin generator as well.

Of course, before you go looking for a MacGuffin, brainstorm to see if you can find anything already important to your story to use instead. I built my MacGuffin generator to help with a WIP, but then I hit on something within the story which made a subplot and the main plot far stronger than a random object might have.

Once you've selected your MacGuffin, you have to make sure you can get your characters—and thus your readers—to care about it (no matter what it is).

Using a MacGuffin
So how can you use something that's not important to ratchet up the tension in your story? You must first make it important to your characters. Often, this is most easily accomplished by showing that the bad guys want it—and showing the terrible consequences of the bad guys attaining their goal: the nuclear device will be sold to the [insert nationality of your choice here]s, the world will end, etc. However, if you make the bad guys bad enough by showing their atrocities, their specific plans for the object may not be revealed until much later—and that revelation is another way to heighten the tension.

You can also make your MacGuffin personally important to your characters. If you've done a good job of creating sympathy with your readers, simply showing how important that object is to the character may be enough. Of course, as with above, you can also show the dire consequences of not getting it back. Is it something they're supposed to guard? Something they need for their health/sanity/continued existence? Will someone else bring consequences on the character's head if it's not kept safe or recovered?

Another classic MacGuffin use is to start a quest. (You can debate over whether the ring in Lord of the Rings is a MacGuffin, for example. Couldn't it have been a chalice or belt or statuette?) Again, showing the consequences of failure will throw your readers into suspense.

In fact, one classic MacGuffin trope can actually give our character the MacGuffin, start the quest, and show the consequences of failure in one fell swoop. Our character is entrusted with the MacGuffin as its last guardian dies—often murdered because he had the MacGuffin. Our character is instantly in that same danger. Hitchcock used this in The 39 Steps.

Naturally, if a character has a MacGuffin—and especially if that MacGuffin is putting them in danger—this often works best with something that our character can't just ditch down a storm drain. Some sort of knowledge or secret works especially well, but so does placing the character in further danger. In The 39 Steps, the main character receives a secret and a map from a spy in her death throes. He can't just toss it and go home because he's now the suspect in the spy's murder and the object of a nationwide manhunt—which also means his picture and name are being splashed across the papers in conjunction with hers, so the bad guys will know to associate them.

Establish the stakes, and the nature of your MacGuffin isn't important. No matter what it is (or isn't), a MacGuffin gets our characters acting—and our readers reading. As Noah Lukeman says, using a MacGuffin, or anything else, to establish suspense and increase tension shows that you're thinking about the reader's experience—and that's one important step to writing a great novel.

About the author
Jordan McCollum blogs professionally about Internet marketing news at Marketing Pilgrim, and personally about fulfillment in motherhood at MamaBlogga. She's always trying to add more tension and suspense to her fiction writing, which she blogs about at JordanMcCollum.com.

Photo credits: rabbit's foot—Heather Lucille; Maltese falcon—RTLibrary; microfilm—OSU Archives



Comments

From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 5th, 2010 12:46 pm (UTC)

Thanks Jordan

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Thanks for the tips, they were great.
Neecy
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From:gingersea
Date:May 5th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
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Great post! Thanks, Jagi and Jordan!
From:anitaclenney
Date:May 5th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
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Great blog. I love mysterious objects in stories, unusual keys, secret boxes and vaults, any kind of relic, whether we understand what the thing is or if it's just a McGuffin. I think it adds suspense and makes it harder for the reader to put down the book. I have lots of objects in my stories, but they're usually not McGuffins. I have one secret box in the first book of my series that I'm not sure what to do with. Maybe it'll be a McGuffin. Thanks for this explanation of how they can be used effectively.
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 5th, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
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Maybe your secret box can grow into something wonderful like the Well of Sorrows in the earlier post.

Or...maybe it's like the secret of Ma'ath from a story my husband made up that I hope to write some day. Ma'ath, an ancient creature/being, taught his apprentices in universe making to have a wrapped box with something inside that made a noise when it was shaken...so that people began to wonder about it. The key, according to Ma'ath, was to always have a new box wrapped and shakig before the old one was opened. ;-)
From:anitaclenney
Date:May 5th, 2010 02:28 pm (UTC)
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Very cool. There is actually a key inside now and I wasn't sure what it opened. I'm thinking now that it's a secret compartment in an old trunk that this family has been entrusted to keep safe. But I like your idea.
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From:marycatelli
Date:May 5th, 2010 03:03 pm (UTC)
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There was a spy movie all set to be released. Then Hiroshima happened. They yanked it, redid some dialog and released it, as a spy movie centering about a process used to create the atom bomb. I think you can safely say that it is a MacGuffin.

The One Ring? Not so much. No one wants it because it is a ring. They want it because it is a source of power. Changing its form would not change the properties that make it so valuable.

Like the whatchamacallit in Stardust -- a jewel, was it? It was the object chosen by the dying lord to mark his heir. I don't remember its exact form because it's not what makes it valuable. (Having the characters know it's arbitrary can be a good way to cope.)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 5th, 2010 05:55 pm (UTC)
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I see your point, but I still think it's debatable. At TVtropes.org, for example:

The Ring of Power in Lord of the Rings is, in fact, a MacGuffin, and many books have been written to that effect. Don't believe it? Consider the fact that it's possible to re-enact the whole plot with a Ring whose only power is to corrupt the wearer and turn them invisible — a magical Maltese Falcon. Any other practical use for the Ring, or mechanism for how it would be used to "rule the world" must be taken for Word Of God, since it can't be shown in the context of the work without breaking the setting. This is actually even more cut and dried in the films where the whole moral aspect of using the rings was over-simplified to the point where fans argue about whether anyone but Sauron could have actually used it for its intended purpose (and if they couldn't, then it's a full-on Clingy Mac Guffin since no one but the villain can benefit from it).

To be fair, Tolkien devoted a lot of ancillary material and letters describing what might have happened and the moral consequences if one of the characters had tried to wield the Ring... turning people invisible was just an unintended side-effect. As it is, we see Frodo actually wield the Ring approximately twice, both times to command Gollum, and some argue it was really the Voice of the Ring both times.

(from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MacGuffin )

--Jordan McCollum
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From:marycatelli
Date:May 5th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
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I would call your post an appeal to authority if that didn't entail regarding a wiki as an authority.

Because its properties do not appear onstage does not mean that they do not matter.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 5th, 2010 09:21 pm (UTC)
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As I said before, this is debatable--there's a good argument for both sides. As I said in the article, it's vital to establish that a MacGuffin matters to the characters, and obviously the ring does. The fate of the world depends on it. But the ring's exact powers don't any more difference to the course of the story than the form does. Insofar as the story is concerned, all that matters is that the bad guy doesn't get it. That's a classic MacGuffin.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 6th, 2010 03:22 am (UTC)
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The Ring is a character or natural force on the plot, not a McGuffin.

In fact, LotR is more a case of Hobbit vs. Ring than Hobbit vs. Sauron.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 5th, 2010 05:33 pm (UTC)

Thanks, Jagi!

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Thanks for the opportunity to blog, Jagi!
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From:arhyalon
Date:May 5th, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC)

Re: Thanks, Jagi!

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Thank you!!
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 5th, 2010 05:56 pm (UTC)

Re: Thanks, Jagi!

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(Sorry--obviously, that first comment was from me, Jordan McCollum :D)
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From:melodyv
Date:May 5th, 2010 07:32 pm (UTC)

MacGuffin characters

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TV Tropes also has an extended version of this where the MacGuffin is a character:
Where the MacGuffin is a person:
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LivingMacGuffin
Where the MacGuffin has been turned into a person, usually a women:
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MacGuffinGirl
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From:bojojoti
Date:May 6th, 2010 12:15 am (UTC)
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Very interesting. I was unfamiliar with MacGuffins, but I tend to like stories that use them.
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From:houseboatonstyx
Date:May 6th, 2010 04:35 am (UTC)
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Charlotte Armstrong wrote some books with strong use of MacGuffin, though I've forgotten the titles. One was the Hitchcock type where a dying informant passes something unknown to the protagonist, who then becomes a target. The other, more unusual, was about trying to retrieve a little bottle of poisoned olive oil before someone accidentally used it, as it was casually passed from one innocent person to another (Golden Goose motif).
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