Q&A

How Can I Justify a Lost McGuffin?

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Hi! I read somewhere on here that it can be weird if you have a very important, world saving object and it is broken into pieces/deactivated/something like that without a reason. What are some valid reasons for doing this?
-Clover

Hey Clover, great to hear from you again!

The specific reasons for hiding or deactivating a world-saving McGuffin will vary wildly depending on the context of your setting, so I can’t even begin to list them all. Instead, let’s talk about some broader guidelines you can use, regardless of what’s going on in the world.

In short, the benefits of hiding or destroying the McGuffin have to outweigh the costs of not doing that. Many stories completely fail this criteria. Redwall, for example, hurriedly explains that the great warrior Martin hid his sword away so that a young mouse could find it later. This means that Martin deprived his people of a weapon that was very useful as a symbol and for self defense, and the only benefit is that much later, someone else might find it. That just doesn’t hold up.

A story that works better in this area is The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, though I do have to spoil the plot in order to explain why. In that story, there’s a hidden magic sword, and the explanation for why it’s hidden is pretty good: in the distant past, a king found out that an evil, immortal mage was trying to get the magic sword in question. This mage was powerful enough that castles and guards couldn’t be counted on to keep them out. If the mage got their hands on the sword, horrible things would happen. Since the sword wasn’t critical to the kingdom’s survival, the king hid it away so the evil mage wouldn’t get it. That’s a good cost/benefit analysis.

That’s all assuming your McGuffin is hidden away intentionally. If it’s accidentally lost, as with the One Ring, that calculation isn’t necessary. Of course, in both situations, you still need to think about some practical concerns. Would the McGuffin have stayed lost? How many people are looking for it? Why couldn’t anyone find it? If it’s commonly sought after, how is the hero going to find it when no one else could? These are all important questions, but if you can figure out why the McGuffin was lost in the first place, then you should be able to handle the rest.

Hope that answers your question, and happy writing!

-Oren

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Comments

  1. Bellis

    With the One Ring (LotR) it’s funny, because it has some vague will and agency of its own without being a full character. It’s all very mysterious, not even Gandalf understands it, which fits the setting and tone of the story very well. But copying this strategy of “the McGuffin had a will of its own and it just wanted to orchestrate things so my story would be easy to tell” is really tricky. If you aren’t careful, it might end up either a tired cliché or feeling comical like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, where narrativium is a tangible force that shapes the world to hilarious effect.

    Another way to lose a McGuffin would be if the people who used it and knew about it got conquered, displaced or destroyed. It is reasonable that the conquerors would either not know about the McGuffin or disregard it as a mere symbol or superstition. (Of course you’d have to explain how the conquerors were successful despite the McGuffin and how that same McGuffin can later on turn the tides) Then decades/aeons later, the scrappy resistance fighter can read about it in an ancient tome and set your story in motion!

    • Grey

      In the Deltora Quest series, the McGuffin is the Belt of Deltora, which kept the Big Bad out as long as the rightful king wore it and had the trust of the people. The Big Bad spent centuries undermining the king’s power by convincing them to only wear the belt for the coronation, and keeping the king in the castle under an illusion that everything is fine and prosperous. In the first book of the series, the Big Bad finally makes his move, and has the Belt destroyed and the gemstones that power it scattered, since they can’t be destroyed and can’t be parted from the land, so he has to settle for hiding them in the most dangerous places he can find or have a minion/agent guard.

    • AK

      You’re right, it does depend on the narrative tone as well. What worked for Discworld will not work for a grimdark epic. What worked for LotR won’t work for urban fantasy.

      More ideas!

      What if lost doesn’t mean displaced in space, but displaced in terms of knowledge?

      Another way for a lost MacGuffin to be ‘lost’ is that the current holders only know part of its power. Let’s say a special necklace worn by monarchs/rulers/oligarchs. You might have to know a certain dead language to be granted full access, or have it be placed in a ruin long lost to activate it fully. (Reference back to your ruined kingdom idea). As a different possibility, they know it grants magic, but do not know it is sentient, or that it can fully control the will of the wearer for half the day in exchange for granting magic while it is worn. (The ruler swears an binding oath to never reveal the truth in exchange for magic.)

      Another idea: the MacGuffin could be evil, or only barely sentient and so destructive and difficult to reason with. That would warrant destruction.

      It could also be a place, or multiple places when the legends say it’s an item. Or it could only be used by telepaths.

  2. Cay Reet

    Two ways I could think of to explain how a McGuffin got lost or dismantled are like this:

    1) The McGuffin isn’t only powerful, but also dangerous. Say it can defend the kingdom, but that action drains the lives of a certain percentage of the populace. To make sure it’s not used lightly, it was dismantled and its parts kept in different places. Over time, the McGuffin was then lost in myth and folklore, but the hero believes the stories and goes out to find it.

    2) The McGuffin (which needs to be on the smaller side for this) was stolen while two princes were fighting for the throne or something of that kind. One prince took it with him to use it as a pressure point in upcoming confrontations, but he fell victim to an accident and the McGuffin was lost with him.

    • AK

      Ooh… Great ideas.

  3. AK

    Hi there! Great article always

    Here is my own personal (and lengthy) take on the problem: I hope you find it useful.

    For my story, I’ve made so that the MacGuffin has an element of agency (it’s sentient and can broadcast thoughts to the resident psionic species). It can explain important events to the protaganists, and as it can prevent itself from being destroyed the protags must bargain with it to succeed.

    Also, the current holders are unaware of its true powers. The holders use it as just a powerful energy source, unaware it holds in place enchantments both nefarious (a dome that blocks entry to refugees and exit for those who wish to flee, magic dampening field only allowing the elite to practise magic) and benevolent (keeps the city warm in the frigid winters, scares away predators via subsonic noise). But in order for equality to be gained, the MacGuffin must be destroyed, and the city is wholly dependent on the power it emits.

    People who want the city to stay as it is (the rulers, nobles, and traditionalists) have good reason to keep the MacGuffins true capacitiy and identity hidden so that no one will think of destroying it (or the flawed order).

    In order to remove the negative enchantments, the positive ones must be removed as well. This prevents the MacGuffin from becoming a Deus ex machina or cure all, and means the characters have to deal with extensive fallout and pick up the pieces. They have to build a new order, and hope they haven’t made things worse.

    Thanks for reading all this! Have a pun as a reward.

    Why didn’t the skeleton go to prom? He didn’t have the guts!

  4. SunlessNick

    If the McGuffin is only relevant to particular category of situation, once the last instance of that situation is far enough in the past to qualify as “out of mind,” people will take less care of the McGuffin.

    The McGuffin may not belong to the people now facing the situation. It could have been forged by another civilisation and returned to them last time the world was saved, but contact with that civilisation has been lost somehow.

  5. Jenn H

    There are numerous ways it could be accidentally lost, for example it could be stolen by enemies, on a ship that has sunk to the bottom of the sea or in a city buried by a volcanic eruption.

    It also might not be a world saving Mcguffin at the time it was hidden away. For example a powerful magical artifact was divided into multiple less-powerful artifacts so every kingdom could have one, but centuries later it needs to be reassembled in order to save the world. A king might want to be buried with his favorite magic sword not realising (or caring) that someone else might need it more.

    The lost Mcguffin pieces might also not be “lost”, but rather be kept by powerful guardians hiding in remote places who wait for the day it is needed most. Maybe the guardians don’t trust everyone else to use the power of the Mcguffin responsibly, so they only bring it out in a crisis. Or maybe the Chosen One is supposed to be the one that uses the Mcguffin and they are just keeping it safe until then.

  6. Richard

    Perhaps the item itself is not lost, but there are other reasons that can drive your plot.

    1. It’s fallen into disrepair. With no need to use it, all that its guardians had to do was check in on it every couple of years to make sure it was still there. No one bothered to do maintenance on it, so moisture got in and caused mold and rust…. If it’s a magical item, perhaps it needs something like one drop of the blood of a virgin at regular intervals to appease the spirit powering it….. I’ve always wondered how all those traps in the ancient hidden temples are in perfect working condition…..

    2. No one knows how to use it. Perhaps it was the instruction manual that was lost. Or maybe the manual / inscription is in an ancient language that no one knows any more (*cough* COBOL *cough*)

    • Arix

      Somewhat related to both of these options, people can be unaware that The Thing actually is a McGuffin. The hero can go through the whole story with his trusty sword thinking it’s just a sword, until it’s revealed that it’s actually the Ancient Sword of Awesomeness. There’s difficulty in having juuust the perfect amount of foreshadowing such that the reveal makes sense without being so bleeding obvious that everyone’s wondering how the hero doesn’t see it, but I mean, that’s true of a lot of reveals.

      • SunlessNick

        Or maybe it could turn out to be a secondary antagonist’s trusty sword, requiring some peacemaking along the way.

  7. Cody Rapp

    Something else to consider is how the McGuffin is going to save the world. It doesn’t have to be a weapon or some other powerful device. Look at how it functions. If it is only useful against your big bad evil guy and doesn’t have another useful feature it would be easy to get lost. Another possibility is if it’s not useful on its own, only a piece of a ritual, etc.

  8. Rose Embolism

    In one near-future SF story I read recently, the mcguffin is actively being kept lost (along with its keeper) , because it’s a mathematical formula that will defeat all current encryption. And the bad guy, one of the creators of the formula, will do anything to get it back…

    In Susan Cooper’s Over Sea Under Stone, an important prophecy is lost, because the Dark was overwhelming the land and they desperately wanted it for their battle against the Light. In later books in the series various artifacts weren’t so much lost, as sealed away for the time of the last battle.

    And then there’s the possibility that the Mcguffin was lost because it’s actually a Sealed Evil in a Can™. In A Fire Upon the Deep, human archeologist working out beyond the rim of the galaxy find a forgotten ancient data trove. Pity that trove contains a seed of the Blight, an ancient posthuman intelligence that seeks only to expand and subsume the galaxy…

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