Author’s Intent, McGuffins

When Another Mother had its world premiere at The Essential Theatre festival in 2017, one of the reviews questioned whether a custody fight over frozen embryos was an exciting enough conflict to drive the story. Certainly, an argument over who “owns” biological material isn’t always the stuff of great drama, but the embryos aren’t really the point. Rather, they serve as a MacGuffin to get the “mothers” and their daughter into the same room for their final showdown.

Alfred Hitchcock is credited with creating the term MacGuffin to describe a plot element that keeps the characters occupied, but isn’t essential to the story. The Maltese Falcon, for instance, is the main object characters in the movie are chasing, yet the story isn’t really about the object, just what it inspires in those who want it. Hitchcock employs many such elements in his films; the opening scenes in Psycho, for instance, set up a completely different film than the audience finds themselves viewing.

In any work of fiction, it’s important to get the characters moving and interacting as soon as possible. If there’s a central plot point, it’s always helpful to work it in as soon as is feasible, but in the meantime, any sort of misdirection will do to set the characters on their way and keep them interacting. Often the objectives become clearer as the story goes on. In most cases, what the reader first assumes is the point of the story is, in fact a divergence meant to set up a greater purpose at work behind the scenes. Often, in pursuing some superficial goals, a main character will stumble upon a higher calling to pursue.

Of course, at some point, the author will have to address the central point or make allusions throughout so the audience can begin to unpack it. In my play, the climactic scene between the two mothers and their daughter addresses the consequences inherent in bringing the daughter into existence and — since both women were manipulated into participating — the ongoing effect it has on the two of them. Each of the characters has a different reaction to what’s revealed, depending upon how much each life was altered by it. Throughout it all, the specter of the woman responsible hovers in the background watching how it all plays out.

Writers face many challenges in producing their work and chief among them is engaging the audience through the actions of the characters. Oftentimes each character has a different motivation and conflicts among the characters arise when these goals are at cross purposes. These conflicts can add excitement to the story and give the reader lots of plot twists to hold their interest. In the end, the quicker an author can get the story moving, the more likely the audience is to climb aboard for the ride, even if the action is secondary to the ultimate purpose.

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