Monday, February 26, 2007

The Mighty McGuffin

46,800 words (storm clouds closer, corpse on slab, where's Igor with that brain?)

I just started reading STAY, by Nicola Griffith. I picked it up because her noir detective is also a six-foot blond female martial artist. And because a couple of short peeks inside the pages showed a style at once lean and muscular and also lyric and poetic. You wouldn't think the two go together, but there it is.

I must be getting pretty secure in my voice, because I didn't worry that the book would throw me off my own track. Good thing, too. These first fifty pages have absolutely *hummed*.

Yesterday's post about stakes got me thinking about McGuffins. That's a word Alfred Hitchcock used to describe the thing all the characters want, the thing they're chasing, whatever it may be. A suitable match for the Dashwoods. Certain pages from Lovecraft's Necronomicon. The truth about the death of Meyer's neice. A better life for the Joads.

Hitchcock felt it didn't really matter what the McGuffin was. The important thing was that the characters' action and reactions to it be human and believable. Probably the ultimate example (at least, before dawn on a Tuesday morning) is the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. What's in it? We don't know, and to a certain extent, don't care. We just need to know that it's worth killing for, worth double-crossing a man like Marcelus Wallace to have, however briefly.

One difference I'd have with Hitchcock is that he always spoke about McGuffins in terms of a bunch of people competing for the same thing. I don't think that needs to be the case, and I'm not sure he really did either. The story drives, and drives hard, as long as one character deeply, deeply cares about the McGuffin. That's all.

I mean, most of the characters in Psycho didn't know or care about Norman's twisted efforts to win his dead mother's love through blood sacrifice. Which is really what's at stake for him, the thing he's chasing. Everyone else falls into his clutches with varying results until he's locked up.

The novel I'm writing right now, I've recently found out that what my two groups of bad guys are fighting over isn't what I'd originally thought at all. Funny thing is, they've been chasing it anyway, with all the morality, mercy and restraint of sharks in bloody water. Now a lot of their odder actions make sense. The shape was there, I just hadn't uncovered it...


etain_lavena said...

Even in life we all Chase what we think is needed for a happy healthy the same goes for characters. I started to write a to be continued story on my blog, I had no idea where I was going with it, it was a girl in a freezer being tormented, and now I am nearly on chapter 12 and it turned out to be an amazing journey for myself. So you will get to your end result just don't stop writing:)

Charles Gramlich said...

It's certainly a good idea to keep in mind what each character wants. I agree with you that it doesn't have to be the same thing for everyone. I can see that rule applying more to caper novels where everyone wants the Diamond, or the money, but in many works the characters want diametrically opposed things and from that arises the tension.

Kate S said...

Interesting. It's funny how we can discover things about our work after we're done (or almost done) that we didn't even realize we were putting in there at the time - they just grew organically from the story to surprise us. I love that.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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