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MacGuffins and Phlebotinum -- by Douglas Phillips

A trope is a common theme used in storytelling. For example, a kiss awakens a sleeping beauty or transforms a froggy character into a prince. The effect of the kiss varies but it’s the same trope.

A MacGuffin is one of my favorite tropes. A MacGuffin is a plot device—often in the form of a physical prop—that is used to drive character motivation. The all-time classic example is the bird statue in The Maltese Falcon, but we see roughly the same thing with the ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Characters are desperate to find the MacGuffin, evildoers would do anything to possess it and the plot goes nowhere without it.

Some say a MacGuffin is a writer's crutch, but the device has been employed so many times in highly successful books and films that I think of MacGuffins as more like lost car keys; you’re not going to get very far without them. Sometimes the MacGuffin turns out to be unimportant or never found, such as the grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but a MacGuffin can become a crucial plot element, such as Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz, their unknown power only revealed at the end.

Another of my favorite tropes is Phlebotinum, which is defined as “a versatile substance that can be rubbed onto anything to achieve an effect needed by the plot”. If your character must be hidden, give him an invisibility cloak. If your spacecraft is on a long voyage to the stars, you’d better have artificial gravity. No need to explain how it works—it just does. Once you understand this trope, you see it everywhere. James Bond always has exactly the right function on his super-fancy wristwatch to get out of a jam. The Nazi general in Wonder Woman ingests capsules that give him temporary super strength. Why? Because otherwise Wonder Woman would just lasso him and the story is over.

Phlebotinum is unexplained science or magic that has both power and limitations. The rules of Phlebotinum are often arbitrary once you think about it, but they always serve the plot. The genie in Aladdin can grant three wishes with a restriction that he can’t make people fall in love. Handy for the climax.

You might think of these plot devices as corny or overused, but in the hands of a good writer you might not even notice them. 2001 – A Space Odyssey is unquestionably one of the best science fiction films of all time, yet the mysterious monolith is both a MacGuffin and alien Phlebotinum. Its presence on the Earth, moon and Jupiter drives character motivation and its powers (teaching apes and humans or screeching when touched by astronauts) are precisely what is required to take the story to its conclusion.

Posted by Douglas Phillips 24 May 2019 at 01:47
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Responses to this blog

Rellrod 25 May 2019 at 03:27  
lol — I sense the presence of another TV Tropes follower!

I agree — "tropes are tools," as the Web site puts it: these kinds of long-established storytelling devices are endlessly recombined by both good and bad authors, with the result depending on how the tropes are deployed.

Ophelie 25 May 2019 at 13:03  
Great article! I had never heard those names before but I recognize the tropes.

Thanks for sharing,
Glitterpen 25 May 2019 at 19:30  
Wonderful blog!
Cawein 26 May 2019 at 10:10  
MacGuffins and Phlebotinum

Thank you for an enlightening and entertaining article! I've been wondering about the meaning of the word "trope." Now, can you explain to me what a "meme" is? These terms seem to be enjoying widespread popularity these days, thanks in large part to the global echo chamber that is the Internet.

Cawein 26 May 2019 at 10:34  
More questions:

1. Is Excalibur a MacGuffin or a Phlebotinum? Or both?

2. What about Superman's cloak?

3. Speaking of Superman, how does Kryptonite relate to either of the aforementioned plot devices?

4. Snow White's poisoned apple?

5. Sleeping Beauty's Spinning Wheel?

6. The Wicked Witch's magic mirror?

7. What about Rapunzel's hair?

8. Tristan and Iseult's Love Potion?

9. The Red Shoes?

10. One Ring to Rule Them All is obviously a MacGuffin. But, it can make Frodo invisible in times of extreme peril, so perhaps it, too, plays a dual role?

Cwotus 28 May 2019 at 18:16  
@Cawein, you touched on the story that has, to my mind, the "all-time" MacGuffin: The Holy Grail. (All-time, at least, all-time to Western readers of a Christian persuasion or upbringing, or who grew up reading in a Christian culture, which also means that it's only "all-time since Christ". Maybe there were other MacGuffins B.C., but since written stories haven't very well survived from before that period, we may never know. Maybe The Garden of Eden itself is another MacGuffin.) I don't know Chinese or other Asian literature of that period at all; there may be other MacGuffins there, and they could be even more well-known among more people than the Grail.

As to Excalibur, that was — in the story, at least — the "actual sword" wielded by Arthur, so not a MacGuffin (particularly as no one else was trying to take it from him overtly), but it does seem to have been a sort of Phelbotinum in that no one but Arthur was able to pull it from the stone to be proclaimed King. (Maybe at that point in the story, before Arthur was crowned, it could have been a sort of MacGuffin, except for the fact that story-wise it was not hidden, only impossible to attain, except by the rightful king.)

In all kinds of national myths (and histories, which are myths that we proclaim to be 'real') the crown and scepter to designate the ruler have been ongoing MacGuffins, too, haven't they?

I recall having to look up the term MacGuffin when I first encountered it several years ago and being puzzled at the time: "Why didn't they just use 'The Grail' at the metaphor for 'the desired thing', so that people would know exactly what the term meant?"
Kittyhawk 28 May 2019 at 19:08  
Thanks for this, Doug! I've never heard the term Phlebotinum, so I have learned something new.
I suppose kyptonite is the anti-phlebotinum.
All the best,
Dougp 29 May 2019 at 03:36  
Both tropes, MacGuffin and Phlebotinum, share one thing in common: they come to life through the needs of the plot. It's kind of a backward way of thinking. As the author, you decide how you want the plot to develop, and when you need a catalyst for character motivation to drive that plot, then you might invent a sought-after treasure (MacGuffin) or a special power (Phlebotinum) that helps carry your plot forward. Of course, you write it exactly in reverse! The treasure or power is brought into the story long before it's needed. Do it right, and it will seem like it was always there. Dorothy had those ruby slippers on her feet from the moment she stepped into Munchkin Land.

A magic mirror is certainly a form of Phlebotinum. It performs exactly as is required by the plot, no more, no less. Love potions are the same.

By the way, the word "MacGuffin" was first used in film by English director Alfred Hitchcock. I believe it's Scottish slang for something nonsensical. And yes, these and other plot devices are expertly defined in TV Tropes. But don't click on that link unless you're ready to spend hours of side-splitting laughter as you follow from one trope to the next! TV Tropes is very addictive!

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