Do You Know the MacGuffin Man?

What is a MacGuffin, do you want one in your story, and if so, how do you incorporate one? Read on to find out about this literary term.

MacGuffinSimply put, a MacGuffin is the protagonist’s goal. It can also be the goal of the antagonist as well. Perhaps they’re both pursuing it, or seeking to prevent the other from having it. It can be a tangible object, or an abstract idea.

Examples of MacGuffins in literature and film include the falcon figurine in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the witch’s broomstick in the film “The Wizard of Oz,” and the Golden Fleece in Apollonius Rhodius’ epic poem “Argonautica.”

Some stories have more than one MacGuffin, and characters seek them in sequence, one after the other. This is common in fantasy stories and fantasy games. Multiple MacGuffins are termed plot coupons.

A character’s goal (the MacGuffin) is different from a character’s motivation. As author Starla Criser explains, a goal is what you want. A motivation is why you want it. We’re mostly talking about the goal here, but it’s important that you convey to the reader that your character has a good reason to pursue that MacGuffin.

There remains some confusion over the term MacGuffin. In the Wikipedia article, director Alfred Hitchcock seems to dismiss it as unimportant—“The audience don’t care.” Director George Lucas disagrees, saying viewers should care about the MacGuffin as much as they do the main characters.

Author Michael Kurland resolves this confusion well in his article about MacGuffins. He says it’s important for the writer to establish why the MacGuffin is vital to the character early in the story. Regardless of the reader’s actual feelings about the MacGuffin, it’s vital that the reader understand its importance to the character. After that point, writers should emphasize the plot and the characters to give life and vitality to the story, and the MacGuffin can fade in significance.

The Wikipedia article states that the protagonist’s pursuit of the MacGuffin often has little or no explanation. I can understand little explanation, but none? The reader has to know the reason for the character’s hunt; otherwise, why should the reader care about the character at all?

Now you know the answer to the question I posed in the title of this blog post. Yes, you do know the MacGuffin Man. He lives in Literury Lane, of course! Address all complaints about bad puns to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 4, 2016Permalink

The Well-Written Villain

Villains, or antagonists, have come a long way. During the history of literature, they may have evolved even more than heroes, or protagonists. We’ll discuss that evolution, and show you how to create a well-written villain for your story.

A villain is a character opposed to the protagonist, who is usually cruel and who may be involved with crime. Not all stories have villains. The word ‘villain’ comes from the same root as ‘villa’ and once simply meant ‘farmhand.’ Only later did the word get loaded down with evil connotation baggage.

VillainFor centuries, when much of literature served the purpose of inculcating morality, authors portrayed villains as one-dimensional characters devoted to pure evil. Writers made it easy for the reader to distinguish the villainous characters from the good ones, by appearance, speech, and actions. Authors provided no reason for the villain’s malevolent nature, nor were such reasons expected. The villain was just bad, that’s all.

Then a change occurred in literature, and villains evolved. From the timing, I associate it with the advent of psychology, the study of the human mind and behavior. I may be wrong about that linkage, but it makes sense to me.

Since the early- to mid-Twentieth Century, it has not been enough to portray a villain as purely evil, without explanation. Gone are the black cape, the curled moustache, and the menacing sneer. (Well, maybe you can use such a stereotypical character for comedic effect.)

The modern villain starts out as a normal person, indistinguishable from any other character. Something happens to that person; a disturbing event triggers a change in the way they think. (Rather than a single event, the character could be raised from childhood in a peculiar way, but then that way must have an explanation.) The character twists the event, obsesses about it, and it becomes a driving factor for later behavior.

As this happens, the villain may not change in outward appearance, so he or she will be indistinguishable from other characters. This warping toward villainy occurs only in the antagonist’s mind. The resulting villain will likely have many good, even endearing, traits, all while harboring a secret inner drive toward nefarious ends.

While writing your story, you’ll need to convey this explanation for your villain’s behavior, even if it’s backstory. No modern reader will accept a character who is evil ‘just because.’

Moreover, the chain of events must lead to the villain being opposed to the hero. The protagonist and antagonist are a matched set. Often, the villain’s desired ends have nothing to do with the hero, but the hero becomes the irritant the villain must deal with to achieve his goal.

To ensure your story is interesting and to give your protagonist a worthy problem to solve, the villain must be at least as smart and powerful as the hero. Your hero must strive beyond his or her own perceived limits, and suffer nearly insurmountable hardships to overcome the villain. But neither can your villain be invulnerable. You should depict your villain as being on a quest of his own, contending with problems where not all of his machinations work all the time.

In preparing this post I studied, and villainously stole from, other wonderful posts on this topic, including this one on wikiHow, the Wikipedia article on ‘Villain,’ and Hallie Ephron’s article in Writer’s Digest. I encourage you to read each one for more in-depth information.

Now you should be ready to create your own villain. With this blog post finished, I can get back to my fiendish scheme to take over the internet! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Soon the entire world will bow down to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

February 7, 2016Permalink

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

December 30, 2012Permalink

Heinlein’s Rules

In his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein stated five rules for writing fiction.  Here they are:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

He went on to say that he didn’t much fear the new competition he’d face from putting these rules out in the open, since he figured half of those who claim they want to write won’t complete step 1, and half of the remainder wouldn’t finish step 2, and so on.  Those of you working out the math should forget it–all those halves are just approximate.

Heinlein’s rules are repeated all over the web and there has been much criticism of them.  Some have said they sound too harsh, like Drill Sergeant Heinlein is shouting all those “MUSTs.”  To those folks I’d ask–If your aim is to get your work published, which of those steps do you think you could skip, or kinda half-do?  Really.  Look back over them and tell me which rule could be softened in its wording.

The main criticisms target rule 3, “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”  Some assume Heinlein is telling writers to send their first draft out on the market.  I doubt Mr. Heinlein meant that.  I think rewriting the first draft until it’s acceptable is implicit in rule 2: “You must finish what you write.”  It’s not likely to be really finished after a very rough, rapidly-scribbled first draft, even though you’ve reached “The End.”  Heinlein means that you must declare the work finished and then refrain from the temptation to waste time endlessly trying to perfect the work, unless an editor has asked for revisions and you agree to them.  As Heinlein also said elsewhere, “They didn’t want it good, they wanted it Wednesday.”

My own quibble with the rules concerns their order.  As written, they are single steps to be executed in sequential order.  The only loop in the process is within the final two steps, which basically say to send the manuscript out, and when you get a rejection, send the work–unchanged–to another market that same day.  So if all the other steps are in sequential order, Rule 3 makes no sense as written. You haven’t sent the work out yet, so how could you have received a request from an editor for a rewrite?  I say Rules 3 and 4 should be swapped.

The great writer Robert J. Sawyer has suggested adding a 6th rule, “Start Working on Something Else.”  This is likely aimed at those who think their first story will make them famous and so wait breathlessly for word from the editor about acceptance or rejection.  If you’re truly a writer, you can hardly wait to tackle the next project, so that’s when you start it.  Unfortunately, Rule 6 would then be the only one focused on some other, next work while the rest of the rules concern a single story.  Still, I concur with the intent, though I might have phrased it as, “Think of another story to write and go to step 1.”

I like Heinlein’s Rules.  I think their commanding tone is a stentorian call summoning you to action and perhaps to greatness.  Don’t think of them as overly harsh commandments that doom you to misery for the slightest deviation.  They’re an invitation; get out there; don’t talk about it–do it!  And they’re also a promise; follow these rules and you will get published.  It’s hard to think of more inspiring words for a beginning writer.

Please let me know what you think.  Also, remember that Heinlein wrote his rules about 65 years ago.  Perhaps 65 years from now people will still be debating words written by–

                                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe


January 29, 2012Permalink

Writing by Number

Today I calculated I’d blog about daily word counts.  For you writers and would-be writers, do you count your word production and log it?  If you do, are you finding it helps you or not?

Here’s my take.  I used to do that but no longer do so.  I think keeping a daily log of writing progress is very valuable in the beginning to establish the habit of writing.  It may even help you get through a slump period, the so-called “writer’s block.”  Once the writing habit is established, such logging may no longer be necessary.

What I’m talking about is the idea of keeping a log of how many words you write each day.  If you write on a computer with a word processor, it’s pretty easy using the software’s own word count feature.  If you write some other way, you might have to count by hand.  You’ll have to figure out how to count words on the days you’re editing previously written text, as opposed to creating new text.  I tracked those distinct acts separately, since editing previously written text yielded much higher daily word production.  Once you get the log going, you can find out what your daily average is over time and even set goals.

Why would anyone do this?  There’s a sort of magic in measuring your progress with numbers.  You will find yourself feeling guilty on those days when you have to log a zero because you did no writing.  You’ll have excuses for that, of course, but they won’t change the fact that your log still shows a fat zero for that unproductive day.  On days where you’re feeling tired and teetering on the edge about whether you want to try to write a bit or not, the knowledge of your numeric log looming before you may spur you to write when you otherwise wouldn’t.  In some mysterious way the habit of logging progress can actually prod you to into the habit of writing more.

It turns out your attitude toward these sort of personal metrics comes into play.  It’s vitally important that “zero days” not get you depressed.  The point of the log is to promote progress, not incite negative thoughts.  If the very idea of seeing a zero besides a date will cause you to think you’re not cut out for writing or might make you want to give it up, then perhaps the idea of daily word counts would be adding too much stress for you.  This thing only works with those for whom occasional failure is an inspiration to greater achievement next time.

You may be thinking that counting words is stupid because not all words are equal.  Isn’t the point to learn to write well, you ask, not to simply write a lot?  Well, yes and no.  Of course the point is to learn to write well.  The few words of a brilliant short story by a talented author do far outweigh several trashy novels written by a bungling hack, even though the word count is less.  But in the first place quantity has its own kind of quality in writing, in the sense that practice makes perfect.  The practice comes from writing a lot, and that practice can be roughly measured by word counting.  In the second place, it’s very hard to measure the quality of prose.  There is no menu item or icon in your word processor for that.  Yet.  (Software programmers, take note:  the world screams for exactly such a feature!)

I’m counting on you to leave a comment for me about whether you log your word counts daily and whether you find it a helpful exercise or not.  Including the end of this sentence, that’s 627 words written by…

                                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe


December 25, 2011Permalink

Why’d She Do That?

Did you ever read about a character making a decision or taking an action and wondered “Why did she do that?”  For example, why does the girl in the skimpy dress unlock and crack open her door after she’s seen the TV news and knows there are zombies loose?  If you have to ask why, the author hasn’t made the character’s motivations clear enough.  Today I thought I’d give you one technique for avoiding that problem.

Engineers have a method called Root Cause Analysis (RCA) they use when something goes wrong with machines or systems they designed–ships sink, spacecraft blow up, cars crash, etc.  They review the accident to understand if they could design the machine or system better to lessen the risk.  It occurred to me one day that RCA could be applied to fiction writing.

Imagine an event–one person taking a specific action.  Let’s represent that event with a rectangle.  For the moment, we’ll call our event the “effect.”  For that event to take place, a set of conditions must be present, and a few other events must have taken place first.   These can be represented by other box-like rectangles off to the left, connected by lines to the effect box.  The prior events can be termed “causes.”

Each of the prior causal events are also themselves effects of even earlier causes and conditions.  This means there is an endless stream of causes and effects, creating a rather messy diagram of infinite boxes and lines. But for our purposes we can keep it from getting too complicated.

Let’s take our seemingly idiotic girl (whom we’ll call Mary) who unlocks her door in a zombie-infested neighborhood.  We put the words “Mary cracks open door” in our effect box.  We know some conditions have to be present for that to happen, but some of them are too obvious to write down–Mary has to exist, she has to be inside a house or apartment, the dwelling has to have a door.  As you do RCA you’ll become more skilled at figuring out which conditions to write down.

Let’s suppose there are other, less obvious, conditions that lead to Mary’s action.  Suppose there’s a storm or fog and the view out her nearby window is obscured.  These could be shown as condition boxes with lines connecting to our effect box.  Suppose Mary’s personality includes the fact that she’s a naturally curious person.  We’ll come back to that one later.

Aside from conditions, we can think of a few preceding events that might prompt Mary to crack open her door.  Suppose she knows her boyfriend is outside somewhere, because he called her earlier and said he’s on his way to her.

Suppose she just heard a noise from outside, a voice that sounds like it might be her boyfriend.  If the call from her boyfriend is one of the prior events, that one will take some explaining, too.  Why would he venture out on a stormy night when zombies are about?  That event cries out for its own prior events and conditions.

The point is for you the author to think about each major decision or fateful step taken by a character and come up with reasons, motivations (whether they are prior events or conditions) that help explain why the character takes that action.

Remember I mentioned that one of our story’s conditions would be that Mary is a curious, inquisitive person?  It’s not enough to just put that in a box on our cause-effect motivation chart.  You need to establish that point earlier in your story.  Provide some scene, or part of a scene, showing that Mary’s personality includes that trait.  Only then will readers understand why she cracks the door later.

When you finish your chart, it should look something like a big ‘greater than’ (>) symbol leading to the final event of your story.  Now make sure the manuscript mentions all the events and all the conditions, even if briefly, and even if only hinted.

RCA helps engineers figure out why bad things happen with complex engineered systems, but I think authors can use it to help explain why their characters do things, too.  What do you think?  Could that technique help you?  From personal experience, I can tell you it has helped–

                                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

November 27, 2011Permalink