Waiting for McGuffin

Don’t be misled – this is unfortunately, not about the brilliant Christopher Guest movie, Waiting for Guffman.

It’s about coming up with ideas for story pitches, which when it really comes down to it, kinda sucks. In fact, few things take as much out of a person as trying to come up with an idea good enough to be expressed in a short paragraph, and strong enough to convince other people to spend money on it. Today’s fiction-related difficulty is of course, the “McGuffin”. Now, one shouldn’t mistake a McGuffin for a Red Herring…

…or indeed, for a McHerring, which will no doubt end up on the McDonald’s menu some time in the future.

For those of you who don’t know, in writerly circles, a McGuffin is defined as: “A plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue.”

…while a Red Herring is: ” A clue which is intended to be misleading, or distracting from the actual issue.” (I figure the McHerring is self-explanatory.)

I’ve spent a couple of hours today, trying to come up with a good example of the McGuffin, in order to figure out why in hell a clever and resourceful young street urchin would be motivated to use his rare talents to pursue adventurous and heroic things. No wonder reality TV’s taking over the world. Anyway, why does a hero even need motivation? Well, aside from justifying the collective urge of self-important actors to walk around grimacing like De Niro, it’s to avoid writing what self-important writers like to call “melodrama.”

Melodrama’s what you get when you cook up an unbelievable story and toss a lot of far-fetched characters into it. And that’s not to say that you can’t depart from reality – it’s what happens when your characters lurch around doing “stuff” for no reason at all and then spend the rest of their time moaning about it. (Wait a minute – this is the exact formula that made Stephanie Meyer a literary giant. Eureka! I’ve found the key to greatness!)

Video game writing is all about the McGuffin. You have to give the player a reason to do what they do and that generally means what having them go in pursuit of what some writers affectionately call a “BDO” – Big Dumb Object.

It’s the reason behind all the shooting, punching and grenade-tossing; without it, the player’s just spinning his or her wheels. Which brings us to the crux of my dilemma.

I find myself at the start of another project, the most exciting and frustrating part, when everything’s wide open and I’m burdened with coming up with something other people might actually want to play. We’re selling fantasy hereā€”not just a fantasy identity, but a fantasy life, and the biggest part of that is the McGuffin, the player’s reason for being. Ever wonder why so few games are made about insurance salesmen and tax collectors? They’re boring, that’s why. So how does one come up with a quest thousands of other people want to pursue?

Yeah…I’m not sure either. At least, not yet. Man, all this thinking’s making me hungry. I think I’ll go get myself a McHerring.

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