planetfall & the MacGuffin

In the last blog I introduced planetfall book 2, its main protagonist (a space Marine), and the first-person approach it will take, with the Marine having no name: essentially the Unnamed Soldier.

In this blog I want to return to planetfall book 1, and talk about a specific plot element that helps drive the story. It’s a thing that many of the characters are either trying to find, or keep hidden. Sometimes this thing reveals itself, subtly, tangentially, metaphorically, but most of the time it is mysterious. At no point do the characters who are trying to find this thing ever get their hands on it.

This thing is the MacGuffin.

Alfred Hitchcock popularised the MacGuffin. He said that, “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers”. It is the thing that causes the characters to run around. It is the thing around which events happen. And it is generally inconsequential to the plot of the film, despite being central to it.

In Indiana Jones land, the Holy Grail and the Lost Ark of the Covenant are the MacGuffins. Indy spends most of the film trying to get hold of these things. As do the bad guys! And then it turns into a race to steal it from each other. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the stolen Death Star plans are the MacGuffin. In this scenario the good guys have them and are trying to keep hold of them and transport them to a safe place. It is the bad guys who are trying to get them back.

Often considered the most beautiful example of a MacGuffin is Rosebud, the last word of Kane in Citizen Kane, and it is the protagonist’s attempts to work out what it means that drives the plot.

So description aside, how is this applied to planetfall? What’s the MacGuffin?

I was inspired to write this blog post by graphic designer and bloopy sound producer Dave House (listen to his Reverse Engineer stuff), who tweeted me after reading just 10 pages of planetfall to say he’d “started reading it and is hooked after 10 pages. Mystery black blobs and fungal panspermia. Loving it.”

I started thinking back over my original intention for planetfall‘s MacGuffin: the black pods – because “mystery black blobs” is exactly how they started life. Without giving too much plot detail away, in planetfall the existence of the black pods is revealed to the reader very early on (another plot device borrowed from Hitchcock, but for another blog). The characters presented as the searchers in the story, the ones looking for something, are kept in the dark about them. During the course of the book they spiral closer and closer to coming into contact with them. But do they get them? Do they even know the pods are something to get?

As I wrote and developed the concept of the black pods (reverse engineered from the material secom which appears in book 2) I realised I needed something stronger as a MacGuffin; the black pods just weren’t working out in my initial planning and writing. I needed something elusive that would give the characters something to do, and continually keep them moving to other situations. So the black pods fell out of favour, and I developed another MacGuffin, which I will mention briefly below. The pods, though, in being abandoned as the story’s principal MacGuffin, refused to give up so easily, and acquired a life of their own – they were just too interesting to abandon from the story, and so turned into the driving element of planetfall‘s cyberpunk underbelly, a part of the story I had never planned or envisaged until it popped out one day in the ubiquitous coffee shop in Crouch End.

This is one of those wonderful artefacts of failure. I tried to make these black pods – analogous to the black box of technology and physics explanations – into a strong driving force for the main story, and failed. In failing, they rallied in my mind, coupled themselves to a character, Verigua, who had charmed its way into the story, and ended up creating a whole story line of their own. It was unbidden, it was unplanned, it wasn’t storyboarded, and I had a lot of fun and frustration and thrown-out writing trying to figure out how they actually fit into the main plot of planetfall.

I wanted to write about this failure-leading-to-success for any others reading this who are writing or thinking of writing a story of their own. Failure is a necessary part of success. You have to try things, work with them, and throw them out if they’re not working. Because sometimes in the act of “killing your darlings” (as a friend once put it), you find something more interesting and creative than you could have come up with on a blank piece of paper. Failure is an option; in fact it’s essential to success. But it has to be coupled with determination and keeping going. This is something that too few of us realise or are taught, I think. It doesn’t matter if you fail – it’s that you tried in the first place. But if you try and fail, and learn nothing, then you have truly failed.  If you try and fail and learn and evolve and learn (and maybe go back to it with something based on your failure) – ah well, then you’re a success. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, it just feels like you’re set up to fail again.

Back to the real MacGuffin of planetfall. On the first page of the book (so no plot giveaways) a character is killed. It is that character’s death, and the hunt for the killer, that is the real MacGuffin.

planetfall starts off as a sort of murder-mystery. It’s a whodunnit?. And like most MacGuffins, as I said at the start, it keeps the characters running around and having fun, while the other MacGuffin, the one that refused to go away, slowly and inexorably catches up with it.  How that happens – well, you’ll just have to read the book when it’s released!

So what about planetfall book 2? Does that have a MacGuffin?  Is there something the characters are chasing or trying to protect or steal or find or figure out? At the moment, even I don’t know. And it’s going to be fun finding out.

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