Posted On October 8, 2014 by Print This Post

The Mini MacGuffin By Erin Kellison

When I met ERIN KELLISON at the Romantic Times conference in Columbus, OH several years ago, her first book was not yet published. In “Author Alley” – where author promo was displayed – I picked up a printed excerpt of Erin’s book and asked her to sign it. Here’s a picture of Erin giving her very first autograph!  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAErin’s come a long way since then – she’s now a New York Times Best Selling Author with a number of books and series published. Erin has participated in a panel discussion at RU before, but this is her first time as an RU Visiting Professor. Please give a rousing welcome to ERIN KELLISON!

A handy technique stolen from the movies to manage information, ramp tension, and reveal character – the mini MacGuffin

Thank you so much to Romance University for inviting me here today. My approach to the craft of writing is to be constantly learning (often envying) the techniques of others. Each story is just as difficult to write as the last, so staying open to what works, paying attention to how it works, and then putting that skill in my toolbox is what helps me stay fresh as a writer. And instruction can come from anywhere.


Movies, for example. Love them. After a day of staring at text until the words are burned into by eyeballs, movies are a fun and easy way to stay in a story frame of mind. I can claim to be working at the same time…and it’s actually true.


Let me give you an example.


I had received revisions from my editor on Fire Kissed, the first book in my Shadow Kissed series. One revision note, relatively minor, set off a ripple effect that eventually broke apart a later scene that had vital information for what would come next in the story. (The editing ripple effect can be brutal that way.)


I didn’t want to solve the problem with an info dump, which is a sudden glut of information or backstory that is not developed on the page. (The old show-don’t-tell adage.) A common workaround is to have characters deliver information during dialogue, but to me that often feels like an info dump regardless. Sometimes characters do it while arguing, which adds tension, but I really love it when the reader gleans what they need to know without realizing it at all.


So I had two characters stuck together on an airplane and a small sprinkling of information that I needed to deliver to set up the action to come. The pacing was off because of it. I grumbled and made no progress. I finally gave up for the day (a few days) and decided to do laundry (which means I was desperate). I was folding a load in front of the TV when the movie 12 Monkeys came on. I’ve seen this movie several times, so I wasn’t really watching. The movie was babysitting my bad mood.


A scene came on—those who know the movie might recall it—in which Brad Pitt is rambling about a bunch of stuff, while he and his co-star Bruce Willis are locked in an insane asylum overnight. It’s an info dump, but one saved by what Bruce Willis is doing. During Pitt’s blah-blah-blah, Willis spots a big spider and he grabs it. He holds it in his hand as he tries to figure out what to do with it. Put it in his pocket? The drawer in the bedside table next to him? Why he needs the spider is unimportant—it never develops into anything in the story. But in the scene, that damn spider has my complete (shuddering) attention. Right before Pitt finishes telling Willis all he needs to know, Willis swallows the spider. Story-wise, the movie had a rapt audience (me) who soaked up Pitt’s manic ramblings while tracking Willis’s spider.


Eureka! I could stop doing my laundry. I had a solution. Make the information-oriented scene about something else—something that builds tension, something scene specific, but that contributes at least peripherally to the story. The spider reminded me a little of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin.


A MacGuffin, a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, is a plot device that has no real meaning to the narrative of the work of fiction (my wording here), but the characters care about it a lot. A common example is the suitcase in a thriller. The enemy can’t get that suitcase! The hero guards it with his life. Does the audience really care about the suitcase? No. They care about the enigmatic spy who must deliver it safely. He cares about it.


In 12 Monkeys, Willis cared a lot about the spider (enough to eat it), and I sure cared about it, too. Still shuddering. Its six legs carried the scene, and yet it did nothing in the overall scheme of the movie. They barely mention it later.


Therefore, I present to you the mini MacGuffin. It’s scene-specific, and it just might save your life. (Okay, that was melodramatic. It might save your forehead from being beaten against your desk while you try to find a scene solution.)


I didn’t go with a spider to be the focus of my info-oriented scene. I had my heroine silently taunting the hero with a glass of wine. He thinks she’s irresponsible and he is determined to scare the seriousness of their situation into her to get her to set the glass down. So he tells her what’s to come. It’s a clash of wills, and I sneak in my info in  while he’s fuming about her state and she’s trying to tick him off. (She’s winning.) The glass is my MacGuffin—the hero cares about it a lot. It’s my handy plot device, one that builds tension, and that very generously also helps me illustrate character, too. Thank you, 12 Monkeys. And thank you, Mr. Hitchcock.


I hope the writers here at Romance University find the mini MacGuffin as handy as I have.


Do any of you draw craft-related inspiration from movies, too? Please share examples of what you’ve noticed has been done really well.

On Friday, Suzanne Brockmann and her daughter/co-author Melanie Brockmann join us to discuss their new book, NIGHT SKY.



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Erin Kellison is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Reveler series, as well as the Shadow series and Shadow Kissed series, which share the same world, where dark fantasy meets modern fairy tale. RT calls Soul Kissed, “a dark fairy tale with a twist, perfect for readers who love passion with their fantasy.”







Agent Malcolm Rook is hunting for people with the rarest of talents—the ability to master dreams. He finds the undeniably gifted Jordan Lane, but she’s wary of mysterious Rook and resists his pursuit as long as she can. Yet the dreamwaters they enter are too exhilarating to resist, and attraction soon ignites electric passions. Delving too deep stirs a nightmare, one they must defeat, or be forever lost to darkness.

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18 Responses to “The Mini MacGuffin By Erin Kellison”

  1. Hi Erin,

    Love Hitchcock movies! Best use of the MacGuffin is in the movie Notorious. Hitchcock was great at the wrong man accused aka the movie North by Northwest.

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | October 8, 2014, 9:19 am
  2. Thanks for a wonderful post, Erin! The first movie I think of when it comes to MacGuffins is the old Barbra Streisand/Ryan O’Neal movie, What’s Up Doc? There is a plaid bag that’s the focus of a great – and very complicated – chase. If you’ve seen the movie, I’m sure you’ll remember it!

    I love your suggestion of using a MacGuffin to help with a difficult scene. I never considered that!

    Congratulations on your upcoming release, and on your continued success!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 8, 2014, 11:04 am
  3. First, I have a niggling suspicion you deliberately distracted us by the words “six legs” when mentioning the spider, which we all know has eight legs. Now with my attention on that detail, I paid extra attention to the rest of your post, even rereading it to make sure I didn’t miss anything else.
    I can imagine my character obsessing on a bit of misinformation that she knows is incorrect, allowing me to slip in other more important clues.
    Can’t wait to try this!

    Posted by Sherry Weddle | October 8, 2014, 11:05 am
  4. Oooh, Sherry – Good catch! It crossed my mind that spiders might have eight legs instead of six, but when I was going to do a quick Google fact check I ran into a technical problem and then forgot about it. Now that I reread that section, I suspect you’re right!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 8, 2014, 11:22 am
  5. Erin – How has life changed for you since you’ve become a best selling, multi-published author?

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 8, 2014, 12:42 pm
    • LOL Life is the same–just juggling playdates and stealing time to write. My cuties are off school for the week, so I only get online in snatches. I’ll bribe them later with a rented movie so I can actually produce some word count for the day. We are all still in pjs. 🙂

      Posted by Erin Kellison | October 8, 2014, 1:09 pm
  6. Erin – I think pjs or sweatshirts and jeans should be mandatory for writers. It might be tricky coming up with a dress code for casual day, though!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 8, 2014, 8:55 pm
  7. Erin – Thanks so much for a great blog, and for hanging out with us today. I hope to run into you at another conference – or a booksigning! – before long.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | October 8, 2014, 10:03 pm
  8. Evening Erin!

    Congrats on your books! I’d never heard the term Macguffin until I took a writing class, and someone used it in conjunction with the Maltese Falcon.

    Sounds like something I can use a lot – thanks so much for bringing it to our attention!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | October 8, 2014, 10:52 pm
  9. Hello, Erin!

    Thanks to your post I can now assign a name to what I refer to as the prop/vehicle in a scene.

    I’m a huge Hitchcock fan. To Catch a Thief is my favorite.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | October 8, 2014, 11:41 pm
  10. Hi Erin. Loved your advice about the Mini McGuffin. I have studied how movies use subtext and I find that very useful while writing my books. Helps to amp up the tension and makes dialogues more interesting. The George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez film, Out of Sight, is a great example of well-written subtext.

    Posted by Adite Banerjie | October 9, 2014, 7:51 pm


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