Category Archives: Authorial Trust

MacGuffins, McGuffins, and Maguffins – Oh, My!

JULES
You win.
Jules raises his hand off the briefcase.

 

JULES
It’s all yours, Ringo.

 

PUMPKIN
Open it.

 

Jules flips the locks and opens the case, revealing it to
Pumpkin but not to us. The same light SHINES from the case.
Pumpkin’s expression goes to amazement. Honey Bunny, across
the room, can’t see inside.

 

HONEY BUNNY
What is it? What is it?

PUMPKIN
(Spoken softly) Is that what I think it is?

 

Jules nods his head: “Yes.”

 

PUMPKIN
It’s beautiful.

 

Jules nods his head: “Yes.”

 

Throughout the movie Pulp Fiction, characters have been influenced by a mysterious briefcase owned by the big crime boss Marcellus Wallace. This plain black object is found in the opening sequence when Vincent and Jules recover it from some bumbling criminals.

The briefcase is an example of a MacGuffin, sometimes spelled McGuffin or Maguffin. We know that it is important because bullets were exchanged and lives were lost in its recovery.

So, what is it?

The answer is, it really doesn’t matter.

No, seriously. The simple briefcase is there for one purpose — to begin the story or plot. The audience doesn’t really care about the briefcase because they’re more interested in what the characters are doing.

Quentin Tarantino even pokes a little fun at the audience in the ending scene, excerpted above. When Jules opens the case and shows the contents to Ringo/Pumpkin, all we (the audience) knows is that the case is valuable and, now that it’s opened, it gives off a mysterious glow that takes everyone’s breath away. Now we want to know what is in the briefcase, but Jules slams it shut and wraps up the scene and the movie. We never find out what was the impetus of over two hours of craziness. Don’t believe me? Just Google “pulp fiction briefcase” and enjoy 174,000 hits and lots of pages with different theories, including Kryptonite and Marcellus’ soul.

The joke was on us, which made the movie even more memorable. It also helped to spur debates as to what was in there, which helped to get the word out concerning the movie.

MacGuffins have been around for a while. The concept can be seen in many old stories, such as the Holy Grail or a certain black bird in a Bogart movie. The purpose of a MacGuffin is to provide a method to get the plot rolling, and the object can be anything external. A big pile of cash or even vague concepts such as glory and honor can be used to begin the tale. The plot revolves around the characters, while the MacGuffin is really ignored for the most part once the story is kickstarted in high gear.

Alfred Hitchcock was well known to use this device to begin his movies starting back in The 39 Steps. Adventures and thrillers used MacGuffins extensively in order to have the story moving along as quickly as possible. Even the original Star Wars: A New Hope uses stolen plans inside R2-D2 as a MacGuffin. Everyone is running around looking for the plans hidden in the little droid. The chase evolves, and in this case so does the MacGuffin’s container — into a beloved iconic character. The data gets extracted at the end of the movie and the final battle against the Death Star commences.

A MacGuffin is a little white lie that the audience or reader plays along with to get to the fun part of the journey. After all, a story about a briefcase would be rather boring, with it being worried about scuffs or how its hinges could use a spot of oil, thank you very much. The hand that holds the briefcase, however, can be a thrilling and satisfying tale.

 


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, MWG, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

 

Gillian Flynn and the Case of the Unreliable Narrator

There are few things I like more than unreliable narrators, reluctant heroes, dark protagonists, dogs, and Taco Bell. Some of my favorite characters on television shows, in books, and in comic books are the anti-heroes and villains that have deep, spanning character arcs. I just hate to love Gul Dukat from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the perpetual heel no matter how hard I root for him to turn into a good guy. Who can say no to The Hound in Game of Thrones? All beefy, reluctant, melty-cheese-face goodness right there. And who isn’t charmed/terrified by Negan in The Walking Dead comics and his filthy, filthy mouth? Kim Coates’ portrayal of Tig on Sons of Anarchy? C’MON, man. The best! And the king of anti-heroes, from which my love of anti-heroes began: Conan the Barbarian.

What most of these anti-heroes and villains have in common is this: their behavior is somewhat predictable from early on. Gul Dukat gonna be Gul Dukat, even if he does some good things on occasion. The Hound looks out for himself until paid to do otherwise, with only a few exceptions. Negan tells his enemies exactly what he’s going to do before he does it. He also loves Lucille, and he’s gonna bring her out to play and he’ll talk some poor character’s ear off while doing it. Tig’s always going to be weird on a supreme level, but he has his soft spots. Conan the mercenary, the pirate, the thief, the treasure hunter, the nomad, still lives his life according to a code.

As a good rule of thumb, the reader has to trust a character to do just one thing: act like him/her/themselves. 

Gillian Flynn either didn’t get the memo, or doesn’t care about your fragile expectations of her characters. And boy is that ballsy. But if you know anything about her success, it’s turning out pretty well for her.

In the first half of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, I was amazed. Flynn’s ability to communicate small issues in a marriage, how they can appear and fester just under the surface, was revelatory to me. I sure didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting such an accurate and subtle commentary on American marriage and the differences between blue-collar and white-collar partner philosophies.

But I also didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting the twist, either. Soft spoiler ahead, so cover your eyes for this and the next paragraph if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie. As it turns out, BOTH of our narrators, married couple Nick and Amy Dunne, are unreliable to an extreme. Just when we start feeling sorry for Nick, and think he’s getting played by a master, we find that he’s been living a secret life all on his own.

What Gillian Flynn accomplishes in Gone Girl is to take the concept of an unreliable narrator and anti-heroes to another level. When we understand that Nick and Amy can’t be trusted (the first unreliable narrator twist), Flynn twists the narrative knife even further, taking their story to depths most people couldn’t dream up in a million years.

Similarly, in Flynn’s novella The Grownup, the reader is presented with an anti-hero that, at first blush, seems honest and straight forward about who she is: a fake psychic. I’ll not mention her former job so you’re surprised when you read the short story yourself (I’ll just say this: the first two lines of the story are some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read. Talk about a hook! Winky wink). Now, as we, the readers, follow this opportunistic woman, we fall into a haunted house/evil stepson-type scenario. Nothing too surprising here – they are common horror movie tropes. And our protagonist, although a con artist of sorts, still has some admirable attributes, and it’s easy to slip into the story from her perspective. We’re even on her side. (Big spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to read this story.) We’re on her side, that is, until we realize too late that she’s not an anti-hero – she’s the villain, and became so under our very noses. And this is Flynn’s trademark. Unreliable narrators to an extreme. Characters that seem like unreliable narrators and anti-heroes who become the villains before the reader can put two and two together.

As much as I drool over and admire Gillian Flynn’s storytelling, I must admit I don’t come away from her books feeling particularly… good. I feel uncomfortable, ill at ease. I certainly don’t need every book to be a happy ending, but I’m used to anti-hero stories ending in a different way (Conan always accomplishes the quest and gets the girl, after all).

What I take away from Gillian Flynn’s expert storytelling and success is this: do what you do, and do it well. If you’re good at pulling the wool over your readers’ eyes, do it. But always do it well. Flynn creates characters we can empathize with, she can humanize extreme situations, and then she slowly crumbles the foundation of what we thought we knew about those characters and their situation. Flynn uses our very fundamental trust of character (that the character will act like himself/herself/themselves) against us. And it is masterful.

Readers don’t always like to be deceived. In fact, a writer pulling a fast one often makes a reader feel betrayed. But looking at Gone Girl‘s success, it doesn’t appear the readers minded the deception because of how artfully Flynn pulled it off. Don’t be afraid to deceive your reader, but only if you can pull it off, too.

True lies

Since joining the Fictorians last year, I’ve found my post for each month’s topic was pretty easy to put together. The ideas would flow quickly and I would have a very strong idea of what I wanted to say and do.

This month, well I’m not going to lie to you. It’s a bit trickier for me. I’ve struggled to come up with books I’ve read that contained outright lies or shocking twists. Maybe I’m just not a fan of the right types of books. I don’t read a lot that is in first person, and I think that had shielded me from our friend the unreliable narrator. If nothing else, this highlights for me and area I should explore more.

Surprisingly I use twists quite a bit in my own fiction. I think they are a lot of fun to pull off, and a lot of fun for the reader to experience. I think we want to be lied to, as long as its fair. The plot twist that comes out of nowhere with no foreshadowing is frustrating, but the surprise that we had the clues for and just didn’t expect is very enjoyable.

I think the plot twist I enjoy the most come in two general categories: “I DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING” and “OH, I HAD THAT WRONG”. I’ll give an example of each below. For me, I think the former is a lot easier to pull off and mostly involves putting a few signposts (but not too many) on the way to the reveal. The second is much more like a magic trick, relying on misdirection.

I DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING

If you’re my age, there’s no example of this more burned in most folks memory than Darth Vader’s reveal at the end of Empire Strikes Back. There is no scene in the movie (or for me, in the series) that carries as much emotional weight as this moment, and I am lucky enough to have experienced it live in the theatre. It also makes so much of Luke’s arc make sense, and introduces a great deal of peril to his future.

(For being a famous twist, it did feel like a bit of a cheat though. Even as a pre-teen, I immediately thought back to Obi Wan’s story in Star Wars, which now seemed untrue. I love Obi Wan, but his ‘from a certain point of view’ speech always felt like an attempt to rationalize the mis-truth.)

OH, I HAD THAT WRONG

I think this model is even trickier. You have to actively steer the audience in one direction while getting them to avoid the second option, all without that action seeming so heavy handed that they catch on. Pulled off correctly, there’s this wonderful moment where the reader or viewer feels this moment of satisfaction that you’ve tricked them, but it was fair. The stakes are higher here though, since you are actively trying to deceive and manipulate your audience. They *want* you to do this, but only if they can’t tell you are doing it. It’s a delicate dance.

A very good example of this is in the first X-Men film, where everything leads up to the moment where Magneto comes for the mutant he has been tracking. At the moment of the reveal, everyone thinks the target is Wolverine. Wolverine thinks it, the other X-Men think it and the audience thinks it. Magneto then reveals the trick: “My boy, who ever said I was looking for you?” Rogue is his target and the viewer goes back and does the math. It all adds up, makes sense and is fair. We just assumed Wolverine was the target because of how the film presented him as the primary character. The filmmakers played on our assumptions and used them against us. As I said, done well I find this very satisfying. We do, after all, want to be lied to.

In my own fiction, I have used both of these models. I particularly enjoy hiding my main antagonist in plain sight, only to reveal his or her true nature and intentions later in the story. To what level of success, well I’ll have to wait until after publishing to get some real feedback on that.

See you next month!

 

April: Grammar and Punctuation

Welcome to April.

We’ve talked a lot on this site about the art of writing. We’ve covered characters, we’ve covered plot, we’ve covered setting and theme. All of the big, large-scale things that make a good story great, and all of the artistic touches we, as artists, put into our work.

But this month isn’t about any of that. This month, we’re getting really down to the nitty-gritty. Watch as our members seize upon their favorite piece of grammar, and expound upon the proper and improper uses of that rule. We’ve got Guy Anthony DeMarco going on a tear about prepositional phrases. Quincy Allen is going to talk to us about the importance of diagramming every sentence you write in detail. I, personally, will be dealing with my trials and tribulations with the nefarious semicolon. Greg Little has an eye-opening piece on all of the wonderful things he does with conjunctions. And we’re going to end this month with a fight to the death between Nathan Barra and Kristin Luna over the Oxford comma–I’ll let you figure out who’s taking what side on that one.

So stay tuned, because this month is going to get past the art of writing into the true, deep, mechanics of the thing. And at the end of the day, if you manage to stick with it, you’re going to be amazed at what you’ve learned.

 

If you’ve made it this far, you probably realize what day it is.

That’s right; April Fool’s.

No, I didn’t intentionally sign us up for a whole month of grammar and punctuation. Yes, those things are pretty important, but I’m not about to make my first month picking a topic that boring. (I await the swarm of e-mails disappointed that this actually wasn’t the topic).

No, instead our theme for April is much more insidious. Our theme is the April of Fooling People.

See, it’s our job, as fiction writers to lie to the reader. Any time we write that something “happened,” it didn’t. That’s the fun of writing fiction; it’s all a lie. But the trick is in being good at lying to people.

And, what’s more, having one’s characters be good at it is an art in itself.

So, this month will be a month devoted to the art of deception. How to pull off a twist ending, unreliable narrators, scoundrels, and sleight of hand will all feature in the posts you see over the next month. So buckle up, folks, because sorting out what’s actually true over the next month is going to become a real issue as the Fictorians begin the April of Fooling People.