The McGuffin in “A Man at Arms”

We’ve talked in earlier posts about “the McGuffin,” i.e. the item or person that the villain wants. Let’s examine this today in terms of the genesis of A Man at Arms.

First, some examples to refresh your memory.

The McGuffin in Casablanca is the letters of transit.

The McGuffin in Raiders of the Lost Ark is the Ark of the Covenant.

In Pulp Fiction, it’s the mysterious briefcase.

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Can you identify the McGuffin in this scene?

Okay … back to A Man at Arms.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the story breakthrough for me of conceiving of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the fledgling Christian community at Corinth (first century C.E.) as a dire political and psychological threat to the Roman Empire. I thought, This letter, when widely disseminated, could incite insurrection and worse. The Romans could not let this happen. They would move heaven and earth to intercept the letter and destroy it.

In other words, Paul’s letter is the McGuffin in A Man at Arms.

You may scoff at such formula-ish thinking. But trust me, nothing helps a writer more than to identify a specific story element like this McG and understand its import for the narrative.

Alfred Hitchcock, who coined the term McGuffin, famously declared that a McGuffin can be “anything at all.” It doesn’t have to have meaning for the story in any narrative sense. All it must be is SOMETHING that the villain is after.

But how much better is it when our McGuffin does mean something? How much more powerful when it’s on-theme, when it reinforces the story’s meaning, and, even better, when it comes to the fore in the climax?

Consider Casablanca and the letters of transit—possibly the greatest McGuffin ever.

First, the movie’s tension revolves around getting out of the city of Casablanca, escaping from the Nazis and reaching safety in Lisbon. Letters of transit? Check.

Second, the theme of the movie is selfish desires versus acting for the good of the greater community. Our hero, Bogey, controlling the letters of transit? Check.

Third, the climax. The central element is the letters of transit. Will Bogey use them for himself and Ingrid Bergman, for his own selfish ends? In the audience we believe so. Bogey has said as much straight out in an earlier scene.. 

But wait! In the crucial instant, our hero hands the letters to Ingrid to help her escape with her husband while he, Bogey, stays behind to fight the Nazis.

BOGEY

(to Ingrid)

Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

When I considered my own letter—the one from the Apostle Paul to the community at Corinth—I thought, This is almost as perfect.

First, the epistle is world famous. Its text is the book in the New Testament that we know as 1 Corinthians.

Second, its content is spot-on to the story’s theme.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up; doth not behave itself unseemly …

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

And now abideth faith, hope, and charity; these three. But the greatest of these is charity.

Third and last, I knew I could use the letter in the climax. It would work like the letters of transit in Casablanca, only better because the actual poetic content would be the engine of completing the story. It was just a matter of figuring out how.

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27 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on April 7, 2021 at 4:03 am

    Leaving us with the hook, “Is was just a matter of figuring out how.”

    What I love about these columns: they show us something that we might have sensed, but hadn’t brought up from the basement of the subconscious into the light of the conscious. Showing us patterns and structures and techniques that, once laid out on the kitchen table and examined (like a kid taking apart a cuckoo clock to figure out how that dang bird keeps popping out), those elements are then known to us. Available to us. To use in our own stories, if we can figure out how.

    I’m sure many of us are watching the Ken Burns / Lynn Novick documentary on Hemingway. They made the observation of how much Hemingway appreciated the music of Bach. I don’t know if I got the quote perfectly from the first episode, but “He liked the counterpoint and repetition, repetition and counterpoint of Bach.” Then in a review in The New Yorker (5 April), critic Hilton Als provided an example in a passage from Hemingway’s “Up in Michigan” that also seemed to be influenced by the cadence in one of Gertrude Stein’s stories, “The Gentle Lena.”

    You could see Hemingway putting all these pieces together: the repetition and counterpoint, examples from this ringleader of artists in Paris — and making it his own. Figuring it out.

    “The rug” in “The Big Lebowski” might also be a kind of MacGuffin. And it really tied the room together.

    • Peter Brockwell on April 7, 2021 at 5:07 am

      Joe, what great points you raise. No less than a sequel to the Guvnor’s post.

      This is what I’ve always found unsatisfactory about the MacGuffin in The Maltese Falcon. I could never until today put my finger on it, but yes, the Falcon itself is meaningless. Its nature, its thingyness and combination of qualities or origin are utterly irrelevant. Ultimately it doesn’t even seen to play any significant part in the story. This makes that movie quite unsatisfying for me.

      For some reason I’m thinking through a bunch of technological MacGuffins: a working quantum computer, nuclear fusion that returns more energy than it uses, water on the moon and Mars, life elsewhere, AI, a cure for cancer. Multiple parties are chasing each of these, and are competing in a sense, and collaborating. And political MacGuffins: votes, prosperity, security, secure borders, the sweet spot for the balance of conservatism and progress, etc.

      • Joe on April 7, 2021 at 7:09 am

        Hey Peter. Good thoughts there. My question to you would be: recognizing the purpose of a “MacGuffin” in story structure (an object that’s a catalyst for action, which then reveals something about the character), would that make your experience of “The Maltese Falcon” more satisfying (ie, being relieved of any burden of “figuring out what it is,” and maybe the frustration of “I don’t know what it IS! What am I missing??). Like, “It’s okay… I don’t need to know what’s in the briefcase. I just need to know that every person on-screen is trying to get their hands on it.”

        • Peter Brockwell on April 7, 2021 at 7:52 am

          Joe thanks for this insightful question. I would have to say, and perhaps this is personal to me, that I need a little more. But there is granularity to that. I’m fine with not knowing the nature of the MacGuffin, but there must be some indication as to why the chars are motivated to pursue it. We don’t need to know the exact contents of the letter to the Corinthians (even though we already do), but we DO need to understand that it comprises a threat to the empire. And, if we didn’t already know it’s nature, we would kind of hope that this might be revealed in the finale.

          David Deutsch, physicist and philosopher of science, remarks in his fascinating book ‘The Beginning of Infinity’ that a good theory must be ‘not easily varied’. ie if you can change the details willy nilly then it has no explanatory or predictive power. ie we could believe that the sun rises because Helios drives his chariot across the sky. But then the chariot could be driven by any old god. Or the sun travels around the Earth on a circular cycle, to which we can add any number of epicycles to increase the precision of the orbit. Whereas a good theory has a structure such that each part specifically must be as it is, and if you change any part, then the whole thing makes no sense.

          And it seems to me that a good story has the same quality. It hangs together as a complete entity. The letter that Telamon pursues has a specific relationship to the Roman governor, and to the Jews, and to the epoch. Compare The Maltese Falcon, where the nature of the MacGuffin isn’t specific to anything. It could have been a Maltese Crow or a Maltese gemstone or a Maltese flibbertygibbet. Change the Maltese […] and nothing else in the story needs to be amended. The MF isn’t a cog meshing perfectly with the machine of the story. Instead it spins freely.

          Incidentally do you know this TED talk by a chap obsessed with creating a replica of the Maltese Falcon? https://www.ted.com/talks/adam_savage_my_obsession_with_objects_and_the_stories_they_tell/transcript?language=en

          • Joe on April 7, 2021 at 8:22 am

            Watched it, Peter. “An entertaining adventure through the mind of a creative obsessive,” as the YouTube page says. When you think about it, it’s like a real-life embodiment of the “MacGuffin Principle.” This Mythbusters dude, obsessed with the pursuit of this falcon, recognizing that (if one of the original owners allowed him to laser-scan it to have an exact replica cast in bronze), he would promise “never to let it out of his office.” That is, an object that has no practical value to others, beyond the desire of the one pursuing it.



  2. Kendall B Gardner on April 7, 2021 at 7:29 am

    So far, so good. I knew it was the McGuffin from your previous posts but I am really enjoying Man at Arms.

  3. Andrew+Lubin on April 7, 2021 at 7:48 am

    “It was just a question of figuring out how.” Headslap. And that’s the difference between Steve’s writing and ours!

  4. Brian Nelson on April 7, 2021 at 8:02 am

    I wasn’t familiar with 1Corinthians before A Man At Arms. Since then, I’ve read through numerous versions, and am struck by how the KJV is so elegant. Not easy to read, but such beautiful language.

    Charity sufferereth long vs Love is patient. …it does not behave itself unseemly vs it is not proud.

    Poetry vs prose.

    I’m not sure the reveal would have hit me as directly if I had known the ‘Love Passage’ previously–because when it happened — I was absolutely sucker punched. It was difficult to read through my tears.
    bsn

    • Joe on April 7, 2021 at 8:45 am

      Brian, that makes me think of a Joseph Campbell quote I saw last week, from his “Power of Myth with Bill Moyers” series:

      “Mythology is poetry, and the poetic language is very flexible. Religion turns poetry into prose.”

      You know what grabbed me even more than the Corinthian passages? At the beginning of Chapter 24 where we’re first informed that the feral girl-child’s name is “Ruth.” The sorceress recites verse, which on my first read, I just thought to be the poetic waxing of a madwoman. But before going back to read a second time (for story structure, etc), I went back to Bagger Vance. I noted Hardy saying how he was in despair after coming back from serving in WWII, and how he read “Ruth’s speech to Naomi over and over, weeping every time.”

      I looked up “Ruth’s speech to Naomi” (Old Testament Book of Ruth), and found the story of Naomi — her husband and sons dead, encouraging her daughters-in-law (Orpah and Ruth) to return to their own lands to find new husbands. But Ruth refused to leave her.

      So THIS TIME, I recognized the witch’s words at the beginning of Chapter 24. No character seemed to recognize the source of the verse (they all looked confused). But considering the meaning behind the child carrying this name — Ruth — it was clear her name is meant to reflect her character: her fierce loyalty… those whom she loved, she would never abandon.

      I can see why it made Hardy weep, over and over.

      • Brian Nelson on April 8, 2021 at 1:42 pm

        Joe,
        Nice catch!

        It is interesting to see a common thread in all of SP’s fiction–coincidences that were likely subconscious or the Muse.

        When I think about Ruth–both in the Bible and in A Man At Arms–I am immediately emotional. Powerful JuJu for sure!
        bsn

    • Mike on April 7, 2021 at 3:13 pm

      Brian,

      *Forgive me if this is covered in Man At Arms, I’m only about a third of the way through it (loving it, thus far).

      I know you appreciate language, and I’m curious if you’ve taken the time to look into the Koine Greek of the original version.

      The actual word that is ultimately translated into either “love” or “charity” (noting that the common understanding of “charity” is still different than it was 400 years ago) is ἀγάπη (agape).

      The various Greek languages have several different terms for love and its various flavors, φιλία (philia – fraternity, brotherly love), ἔρως (eros – passionate love), στοργή (storges – something like an invested or instinctual love, as a parent of their child), ξενία (xenia – hospitality or neighborly love), etc. Put mildly, it beggars English in this respect. ἀγάπη most accurately describes a divine or unconditional love.

      While ἀγάπη is translated as “charity” in the KJV, I’d argue that ξενία more accurately matches the modern sense of the word. It was likely a much more accurate translation for ἀγάπη in the early 17th century. I’ll agree that there’s a poetry or rhythm to KJV that is absent in many other translations, but that comes with a degree of ambiguity.

      “Love” is clearly too much of an umbrella term for any accuracy, and “charity” seems an inaccurate translation in its modern understanding. “Faith,” or “conviction,” might be the best way to read the passage, today.

      • Brian Nelson on April 7, 2021 at 3:59 pm

        Mike,
        I haven’t–but this is one helluva summary! I agree with your assessment. I almost wrote exactly what you said about ambiguity–the New International Version, or likely any modern version are much more direct and clear. I chose to memorize the NIV version because of its clarity–actually mixed a few versions because of how different the ‘when I was a child…’ verse. I preferred a different version.

        I opted for a clearer version to memorize because I’m attempting to internalize this as ‘marching orders’. Ambiguity–as you well know–do not help in execution of orders at all. KISS and BLUF are our watchwords.

        Speaking of languages, I am in day three of a coding bootcamp. Decided to use up some left over GI Bill to learn the 21st language of computer code. It feels just like my first days in Monterey trying to decipher Cyrillic…why or why am I punishing myself?!?!

        Have a great day, and thanks for your insightful commentary.
        bsn

        • Mike on April 8, 2021 at 4:18 pm

          Brian,

          I’m still in the early stages of teaching myself Ancient Greek (let alone the Koine used in the Bible), or I’d attempt to provide a translation that’s both artistic and precise. Gimme a few months (read: decades), and I’ll get back to you.

          You’re literally learning to code? That’s both impressive and ambitious. I had to learn a little Java and C++ when getting my digital art degree, and it bored the hell out of me (I was in it for the art). I’ve forgotten all of it, since.

          Teaching myself Greek feels nothing like being back in Monterey learning Arabic. Studying on top of a mountain while watching whales breach in the distance is a much different experience than my current station (Drum).

  5. Deborah DeRoo on April 7, 2021 at 8:47 am

    Wow! That’s a lot to digest. I’m thinking of my novel in process, almost finished…and wondering what the McGuffin is. Is it the found journal revealing past secrets or, if it’s what the villain wants, and the villain is self sabotage, could the McGuffin be a the main character’s honor or time?

    And if I decide it’s the journal or the honor, do I go back in and add bits to draw that out in a subtle way?

  6. JOHN THOMAS on April 7, 2021 at 9:10 am

    The Romans had a mail system that only the Emperor was allowed to use. Anybody else caught using it was executed. The relationship between Egyptian papyrus and Roman Roads was deep an intertwined one.

  7. Michael R on April 7, 2021 at 9:36 am

    Having just finished Man at Arms, I can say that this was all done beautifully. I would follow the story on my e-reader with many toggles back and forth to Google Maps to better understand the geography of world you were describing and came to discover, even as a life-long practicing Catholic, and hearing (& reading) about St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians literally all my life that I had no idea it referred to the city of Corinth in Greece and the then fledgling Christian Community. Finishing the novel just before Easter really added a profound dimension to the events of Jesus’ crucifixion, making it somehow more real and meaningful and powerful. Your work also added real dimension to the fact that Christianity, though everywhere in our modern world, was for centuries feared and great efforts were made to stamp it out by those in power of the Roman Empire and elsewhere.

    The letter itself was an awesome plot device and added significant depth and realism to the story. So well done Mr. Pressfield!

  8. Michael Esser on April 7, 2021 at 10:50 am

    I always thought that the term McGuffin was born out of a lack of respect for your characters. For them, your characters, the “McGuffin” is as real as can be. For Rick, the decision to give the letters to her so that she can leave with her husband is a life changing event. For Ingrid (forgot her name in the story), the fact that Rick gives her the letters is saving her life and that of her husband. You are the “god” of the world you have created and this enables you to look down on your characters and to smirk at their futile attempts to live their lives the best they can or pursue any other kind of goal, they have decided is worth while their time in that world you created.
    But just because you can look down on them doesn’t mean you should.

    You may say.”Oh, but we’re professionals here, talking in our lingo so that we understand each other.” Maybe, but I doubt that any of those who have truly deserved the title writer have ever used terms like “McGuffin.” Or can you imagine Dostojevski talking about Raskolnikov’s desperate search for redemption as his “McGuffin?”

    • Mike on April 7, 2021 at 3:30 pm

      Mr. Easer,

      Ilsa.

      While I would be incredibly surprised (utter disbelief) if Dostoyevsky or any of his peers knew the term “McGuffin,” the craft of writing didn’t die with the 19th century.

      Hitchcock wasn’t primarily known as a writer but I’m curious as to why you believe he doesn’t deserve the title. Likewise curious as to why you would have interest in this blog if you feel Steven Pressfield doesn’t deserve it.

    • Mike on April 7, 2021 at 3:31 pm

      *Esser

      Apologies. Autocorrect.

  9. Ant on April 7, 2021 at 7:09 pm

    The great thing about the letters of transit in Casablanca is that they are the perfect example of how a McGuffin can be completely illogical and yet the audience buys into it. Signed by De Gaulle? Why does that carry any weight in Vichy-controlled Casablanca? And even if they were (more appropriately) signed by Pétain, why would the fact that Victor holds some piece of paper stop the Nazis arresting the leader of the resistance on sight? Yet these logical flaws don’t stop us the audience being captivated by the story, propelled by the McGuffin.

  10. John Wolcott on April 8, 2021 at 1:05 am

    Another excellent post. As a nonfiction writer, I’m trying to find ways to incorporate fictional storytelling techniques into the nonfiction stories I write. Steven’s post and all your comments have been helpful.

  11. Jürgen Strack on April 8, 2021 at 4:11 am

    Ditto, John Wolcott.
    💟 being part of this.

  12. Paul Earl Garrett on April 8, 2021 at 2:00 pm

    Enjoyed the book. The way the contents of the letter are made known to the reader may be one of the great “reveals” in modern literature. Much modern writing about this period is based on Gibbons’ theory in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that the downfall of Rome was brought about by Christianity. That theory has been called into question in recent years. Still, one wonders what effect a letter expounding on the importance of love might have on a society based on power and strength.

    • Joe on April 14, 2021 at 2:24 am

      Good thoughts, Paul.

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  14. shell shockers on May 25, 2021 at 2:15 am

    The Romans had a mail system that only the Emperor was allowed to use. Anybody else caught using it was executed.

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