Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Millet MacGuffin

In recent reconsiderations of the stakes within my novel, I've been doing oodles of research on farming in Australia in 1914. I've come up with all kinds of excellent information, and as a result I've resolved all kinds of lingering questions within the plot.

Most of what I've discovered, though, will be nothing more than a MacGuffin in my story.

What, you might ask, is a MacGuffin?

Oddly enough, the Wikipedia page on this topic is excellent. Find it here. It includes numerous comments from the man who created the term- Alfred Hitchcock- and examples of commonly used MacGuffins in various genres. For example,

"In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers"

A MacGuffin is, within a story, the thing everybody wants; the object/ idea around which the plot revolves- but what it actually is doesn't matter, compared to what people will do to get it.

The MacGuffin in Between the Lines is the experimental new crop that Bill plants in the beginning of the novel; the future of the farm.

It doesn't matter for a minute what exactly that crop is is; all that matters is the function it serves. The chosen crop has to be a gamble that will pay dividends if it succeeds, and destroy them all financially if it fails. The MacGuffin is at the centre of many story events- Bill and Len argue about it at the start; he and Kit work to keep it going when the other farm workers go away to war; and in a make-or-break moment, a furious neighbour lights a fire that destroys the lot- propelling Bill into the war he's resisted so far. At the end of the novel, a renewed effort to make it grow it brings Bill and Len back together and provides a future for Jared.

I could get away without even naming this magical crop, as long as the details are credible enough. There's a drought on, and Australia's entire wheat crop failed in 1914. So I went looking and found a drought-resistant crop, and one that was worth double the price of wheat- millet. It's not commonly grown here, but that doesn't matter either, as long as there are good reasons why Bill would think of it- and a precedent to say it *has* been grown here before. Conveniently, I also came across a few newspaper articles of the time talking about millet being worth a mint because of the dearth of other forage crops.

And now what I need is not the crop itself, but the situations, the characters, their actions, and their reactions to be believable.

Millet is, in this sense, the MacGuffin in my story.
  • The conflict in the story begins because of it (Bill and his brother argue about it, leading to a bigger fight, a thirst for revenge, a drinking session- and events spiral out of control from there).
  • The main character's drive to make it work leads to his initial downfall.
  • And the crop brings about the resolution at the end of the novel.
But is this a novel about millet? It's certainly not. It's a novel about the passions and pains that make the characters behave the way they do- jealousy, sibling rivalry, pride- and the consequences that come as a result of their actions- injury, death, separation, heartbreak, and ultimately redemption.

So, millet is at the core of the novel- but in and of itself, it's not the least bit important.

Do you have a MacGuffin in your story? Something all the characters are working for?


  1. That's interesting Claire - I never would have thought of it that way.
    A novel about millet, lol :-)
    I wonder if you can call something like the Edict of Expulsion a MacGuffin? Characters don't necessarily fight over it, but it's the driving force behind all their movements from the start of the novel. Hmmm, will have to think of this some more...

  2. You have me wondering what the McGuffin in my story is.

  3. Ah, the good old McGuffin. I did a paper on it in college for film class. Memories. Shudder. :)

    Ahem. Anyway, one could argue that Kit herself is also a McGuffin -as it pertains to Len and Bill.

    In PETAL Molly's necklace is a definite McGuffin. As for MOON, Archer's power/curse is the McGuffin.It is the quest to possess understand those things that drive the plot and defines the character's motivations. But by the end of the books Molly's necklace and Archer's powers amount to very litle -they were simply the catalyst for change. :) Which is why I like a good McGuffin -helpful tools that you don't have to spend time explaining.

  4. I'm not sure I've got one. Maybe the concept of "family" in whatever form it takes. That's what they're all fighting about ultimately, Meredith because she didn't have it anymore, Jack, Emily and Harry, to keep the family together.


  5. Susan and Jill, not every story has a MacGuffin :) Don't look too hard!

    Sometimes plot is just plot, you know? :) I guess you can identify a MacGuffin by thinking, could I replace it with something similar but not identical, and have it still mean the same thing?

    I know I could- millet could be just as easily be wheat, soy beans or elephants for all it matters.

    Kit, though- I don't think she quite qualifies under that definition (g).

  6. (Also- Kristen, yes! Great examples :))