Since the beginning of film storytelling, many scripts have featured what Alfred Hitchcock called a ‘MacGuffin’ – an object or device that is necessary to the plot, but in itself is kinda irrelevant. Over the years the MacGuffin has been an important part of the Three Act Structure of modern cinema. But are its days numbered? I say yes…and no.
Obviously, if you want to tell a compelling story in any medium, stuff needs to happen. Getting your characters needing to find something, or needing to stop bad folks from finding something makes good story sense. It’s been a movie staple for over 100 years – since Keystone Cops chased a dog eating a hotdog that had a neckless wrapped around it. But institution or not, today, use of the MacGuffin is symptom of the general decline of our enjoyment of film storytelling.
I’m going to use the latest Thor as an example. Love and Thunder decided the bad guy (Christian Bale), needed Thor’s replacement Hammer – some Axe thing – to help him kill all the world’s Gods. At that point the movie, and it’s Three Act Structure, had its MacGuffin, and a big problem.
I would argue anyone who has seen movies regularly over the last 40 years either consciously or subconsciously knows that as soon as someone said the axe was important for the bad guy, by the end of act 2, or around 75 minutes in, Christian Bale was going to get the axe. Because it always happens. ALWAYS. Because it’s a vital piece of the Three Act Structure. Which means the movie suddenly became predictable.
It was awesome to have a guy in the 80s write a book creating a template/roadmap/algorithm for screenwriting. Writing is hard. Structure is super hard. Having someone lay it out for you, even in a highly confusing way – still beats being told to go out there and wing it. And the audience certainly appreciated the rhythm for a long time.
But when that set of plans has filled our box office pleasures for decades – we, the audience - start to instinctively know what’s coming. Which means the ‘MacGuffin’ is devalued as a story device. Which means the three act structure suddenly looks…well…old and dull.
Dress up the pig all you want. Put on that lipstick. The bad guy is still getting the object on or about page 75, and we ALL know it. Which is one reason I came out of ‘Thor’ feeling like it was tired. Everyone tried hard, but it was just tired.
History may show Marvel contributed to the ‘MacGuffin in the 3 Act Structure’s’ demise. You could argue their epic, two-movie Endgame was the ultimate McGuffin story (the hunt for the stones), and now we are in a post-Endgame world, where nothing can really top it. It’s too soon to tell.
But rather than feel sad, confused or frustrated, this could actually be an amazing opportunity. The best stories confound our expectations. Take us places we don’t expect, throw us curveballs. One of the many reasons Top Gun Maverick is so successful is its ability to have you believe it might just kill off Tom Cruise. That moment of doubt in your head – means the storytellers have won, and your experience got that much richer.
The Three Act Structure has served us well. But it’s time to explore other options. Especially when it comes to MacGuffins. So, as you think about your next script, and the object central to your plot, understand the audience is subconsciously expecting the evil doers to acquire it around page 75. Use that information to your advantage. The more understanding you have of the traditional structure, and the more you focus on the audience and their expectations, no matter how subconscious, the more you can experiment, and break it down.
All of us – managers, producers, the ticket-buying public – want to feel stuff, be surprised, and taken on new adventures. We are tiring of a road map that hasn’t been updated since we thought Mel Gibson was a good guy. ‘Command of Structure’ means more than being able to plug your story into a tired old template. It means knowing how to give the audience an entertaining experience.
Change is a part of life. The time for the MacGuffin and the Three Act Structure to change has arrived. Who says it needs to be replaced with another template? (Please don’t mention the 7 Act structure or any other jargon-based drivel.) Maybe the audience has moved beyond one strict rulebook for the cinematic experience?
I know what I’m saying will make studio marketing teams very nervous. But as writers, this is the time to embrace change and find new ways to engage our audience. Learn what has gone before. Know the rules before trying to break them, but please, give the MacGuffin a chance not to be seized by the baddies on page 75. It’s time.