“Don’t you mean ‘The MacGuffin?’” No, I don’t.

So, one reader wrote in via the newly added form that the external super-objective mentioned in my scene-and-sequel entries was actually the MacGuffin in a story. I won’t touch the levels of snark involved, but I will say this: No, I don’t mean the MacGuffin at all. Not every story needs a MacGuffin.

What differentiates the MacGuffin from the external super-objective is this: Who desires it. In thrillers, the MacGuffin is the object sought by the antagonist for their own ends. A jewel thief wants the Hope Diamond but the protagonist wants a promotion to senior detective and the shiny badge that accompanies that promotion; the badge is the external super-objective.

MacGuffins are tied to ticking clocks and antagonists; the external super-objective is tied to the plot and protagonists. If the antagonist gets the MacGuffin it’s usually game over and the plot falls apart. However, the protagonist’s quest for the external super-objective is linked to thwarting the antagonist. Think about The Silence of the Lambs: Clarice Starling wants to become a special agent and receive her badge, but in order to do this, she has to thwart the antagonist—Buffalo Bill—in his quest to complete his woman-skin suit. The woman-skin suit is the MacGuffin, the badge is the external super-objective, and the ticking clock is the amount of time the last abducted girl has in the well in the basement before she loses enough weight to become useful to Buffalo Bill.

Some people have argued that the Holy Grail is the MacGuffin in the legends of King Arthur and his knights. This is erroneous as the Grail is the external super-objective. Morgana LaFey wants to thwart the knights on the Grail quest long enough for Arthur to die so her son (and the byproduct of her incest with Arthur) can claim the right of ascension, become king, and so claim the crown, the throne, and—most of all—Excalibur, which Boorman calls “The sword of kings.” It’s Excalibur that unites the warring factions of England and it’s Excalibur that gives the king undisputed right to rule, not the Grail. The Grail is only important to Arthur and the Grail knights; Excalibur is the goal of Morgana and “her unholy child.” At the end of Boorman’s film, Arthur instructs Perceval to throw the sword into a lake in order to prevent unscrupulous men from abusing its power (because we’ve seen that this act will break the sword and so break England into warring factions once again).

A similar concept in science fiction and fantasy is called the Big Dumb Object or BDO. The BDO is an alien artifact or magical item that possesses or bestows incredible power. If you’ve ever seen the movie Chronicle, the BDO is the glowing crystal the young men find under the earth. We don’t know what it is or where it came from but it gives them super powers. The external super-objective in the movie is the Tibetan Plateau with the flags and the monastery (or is that Lhasa?) in the final shot. The boys don’t expect to find the BDO and they don’t know what it’s about to do to them, but it’s integral to the story. It’s “dumb” only inasmuch as it forces the plot to move along without much explanation of its origin. Understanding the archetype (that it is the philosopher’s stone of the alchemists) isn’t obvious and this can leave some viewers feeling cold or like the writers were lazy; they weren’t lazy, they were just cryptic.

So, there it is: How the external super-objective differs from the MacGuffin and from any and all Big Dumb Objects. It’s all very nuanced, folks.

Shriek into the Void...

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