The MacGuffin: Have We Found a Title?


A month ago, I had a talk with a friend of mine about my troubles. Having finished writing my first book, I was getting a ton of rejection letters from various agents, and wondered if there was anything I could do to improve the pitch. I sent over my query letters and asked for a few tips. He got back pretty quick with a few tips. Mostly presentation and wording. One tip really cut deep though.

“You need a new title.”

I of course thought the journey would be fun, and coming up with alternate titles would be a nice way to stretch my creative legs before continuing the query process and eventually continuing on to book 2 of this series.

It turned out to be a lot harder. As of the writing of this post, 273 alternate titles were written. A lot of them came in groups, 10 titles being variations on the same ones, switching out one or two words or altering their order to see if a different combination worked, but a different title is a different title, and I have 273 of them.

A title should capture the essence of a story. It should tell the reader what they are in for, reveal some small part of the story to them, tell of a character’s arc, illustrate a concept that gives a narrative its meat. There are numerous examples of perfect titles in books, film and others. To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, Pride and Prejudice, The Color Purple

There is also another kind of title. The MacGuffin.

A MacGuffin is a narrative device to drive the plot by use of an important object or artifact. Famous MacGuffins are too numerous to name off here, with examples including the rug in The Big Lebowski, a missing woman in The Lady Vanishes, a dead body in Stand By Me. It is the thing that gets the characters to go where you want, when you want them to get there.

It can also, as mentioned above, be a pretty nifty title. It is after all the thing that gets the characters’ attention, so why not your audience? The titular statue in The Maltese Falcon is the source of much murder and intrigue in the classic film. And that if just for starters.

The entire Indiana Jones series centers around Indy’s search for various MacGuffins, the Ark of the Covenant, the Sankara Stones, the Holy Grail and so forth. The first such MacGuffin also provides the original film with its title. Raiders of the Lost Ark.


Another well known example is Lord of The Rings. The quest to destroy the One Ring may not sound like much, but the journey it takes the characters on remains to this day one of the best epics ever put to the page or screen. That it is all for a single piece of jewelry is a testament to how effective this literary trope can be.

If you are looking for a more contemporary example, the first Harry Potter book is a good place to look, its MacGuffin also proudly displayed on its jacket. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or Sorcerer’s Stone depending on which side of the pond you live.

MacGuffins are a tried and true literary trope that have been passed down through the ages via pen and parchment, keyboard and printer. So of course a MacGuffin would make its way into my story. It is after all inspired by the Indiana Jones series. It would almost be a crime not to include one.

It follows the If Bad Guys Get Thing, Bad Things Happen trope of MacGuffins, and is a key element to the universe mythos. My main series villain, as you can read in the Villains article, brought with him the components of a machine that would act as a beacon to call others of his kind to my world. It is an act akin to opening the gates of Hell, only this Hell comes not from below, but above.

After the apparent death of the villain, the machine was disassembled and scattered to the four winds. Over the centuries, the loyalists of my villain have been questing for these pieces, a trip that has given them much excuse to do some very bad things. They have collected all of the pieces.

All except one.

One single, tiny fragment without which the machine cannot run. A small black shard that once possessed by the loyalists of my villain, will surely spell oblivion for my world.

It is an important object for the entire series. The race to locate this piece is the driving force in the first book, and several key moments in the series involve what amounts to an epic game of ‘keep away’, with the artifact changing hands before eventually coming into play in the finale.

Though ultimately the characters and their journey are the most important thing, sometimes a MacGuffin can be a good way to rope in an audience. After all, no one knew who Indiana Jones was in 1981, one of the reasons his name wasn’t included in the title of the first film. But everyone knew what the Lost Ark was, and the prospect of a bunch of raiders chasing it down sounded pretty interesting.

The search for this title has been tough. The journey was grueling. There were times when it got depressing and I sunk into stupors of self loathing and hopelessness that I would never find it, leaving the story that had become my whole world doomed to forever sit unread and unloved.

I began the journey on the 19th of October, 2015. It is now November 22nd, 2015, and for the first time, I have looked at one of those scribbled down names and smiled.


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