He talks about the failure of surprise in the use of a MacGuffin in the classic three-act structure because he argues that anyone who has seen movies regularly over the last 40 years – either consciously or subconsciously – knows that as soon as someone said “This Thing” was important for the bad guy, that by the end of act 2, or around 75 minutes in, the bad guy was going to get “This Thing.” Because it always happens. ALWAYS. Because it’s a vital piece of the Three Act Structure. Which means the movie suddenly became predictable.
He goes on to say “History may show Marvel contributed to the ‘MacGuffin in the 3 Act Structure’s’ demise. You could argue their epic, two-movie Endgame was the ultimate McGuffin story (the hunt for the stones), and now we are in a post-Endgame world, where nothing can really top it. It’s too soon to tell.”
The OCD writer side of me didn’t like this.
The three-act structure is the most well-known and frequently used structure in filmmaking today. But there are different ways to approach it, such as the 15 beats outlined in Save The Cat or Dan Harmon’s Story Circle (loosely speaking).
And I think that the simplicity of the three-act structure is why it is a perfect marriage to filmmaking. There are great films which don’t follow the three-act structure beat-for-beat, though these are rare, and I don’t think it’s time to turn our backs on the three-act structure.
Tim also draws the same conclusions stating that what we really need is better writing. OK, I paraphrase, he says:
“The Three Act Structure has served us well. But it’s time to explore other options. Especially when it comes to MacGuffins. So, as you think about your next script, and the object central to your plot, understand the audience is subconsciously expecting the evil doers to acquire it around page 75. Use that information to your advantage. The more understanding you have of the traditional structure, and the more you focus on the audience and their expectations, no matter how subconscious, the more you can experiment, and break it down.”
“All of us – managers, producers, the ticket-buying public – want to feel stuff, be surprised, and taken on new adventures. We are tiring of a road map that hasn’t been updated since we thought Mel Gibson was a good guy. ‘Command of Structure’ means more than being able to plug your story into a tired old template. It means knowing how to give the audience an entertaining experience.”
For me, I use the classic MacGuffin definition (and I have one of these in the short film I am writing at the moment).
A MacGuffin is a plot device that either serves as a catalyst for the action in a story. It can be a goal, person, object, or idea the characters are in pursuit of, and it generally needs to be revealed in the first act.
Typically, a MacGuffin will not have any identity of its own, and it can be interchangeable. For example, Pulp Fiction has the shining briefcase, but the briefcase could’ve been anything. It could have been a safe or envelope. We never even actually see what’s inside the briefcase. The MacGuffin itself is not important; it only matters in the context of moving the plot forward.
And some of the examples Tim uses for MacGuffins – such as Thor’s Stormbreaker and the Infinity Stones – are not true MacGuffins in my writing world. They have a purpose beyond driving the plot forwards and being of little other consequence. I think this is getting into the territory of the generic ‘plot device’ which is anything that moves a story forward. This can be something material like a character or an object or something immaterial like a situation or a change in the film world. Many plot devices have become tropes over time, such as a MacGuffin (a physical object) and Deus Ex Machina (a situational resolution).
I think the real issue here is that we have fallen into a formulaic process that has borne commercial success yet has become cliched and overused. It is not the MacGuffin specifically, nor the three-act structure that is to blame, but the creativity of the writers and how they use the tools at their disposal, and maybe even the willingness of the studios to take a risk and think outside of this formulaic box that keeps trying (or has) to one-up itself each time.
So, as Tim surmises, we need to be more creative in how we use the tools at our disposal as writers to create more engaging films. I know as a cinema-goer that when a film is well written I am not looking at my watch to see if the bad guy gets the plot device at 75 minutes, and there are good examples of this in recent releases – Top Gun: Maverick, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dune, The Dark Night, Love & Monsters, BlacKkKlansman, Joker – but I think fatigue has set in in the tentpole franchise movies which Tim seems to be leaning more towards. And it’s a fatigue that we sadly keep falling back into.
Remember: It’s all about Story. And a good one at that.
I wrote about a similar issue 10+ years ago: Why Audiences Leave When Stories Get Too Big. Have we completed another 10-year cycle and is it time for a reset in the film world? Great films will always continue to be written, but franchises need to remember that initial success + formula can become a recipe for failure.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
Franchises are fabulous, or it’s franchise fatigue?