I had the opportunity to speak this week with Patrick Somerville, as part of the Writers At Cornell podcast. Somerville was a student here a few years back, when I knew him slightly; since leaving Ithaca he has published a collection of stories; and his first novel, The Cradle, will be out in the spring. We talked about a lot of things (click the link and listen in), but most interesting to me was his description of how he came to write his novel.
The stories, as I mentioned to him in the interview, all pivot around events--tragedies, mistakes, embarrassments. Indeed, Somerville came to realize that this technique (a reliable one when it comes to short stories) had become a bad habit, and he struggled to figure out a new approach to narrative that would enable him to write a good novel. After a couple of false starts, he hit upon an idea--he would let a story spring from a MacGuffin.
Alfred Hitchcock didn't invent the MacGuffin, but he did invent the term, and popularized the concept. It's the device--generally an object--which propels the plot. It doesn't matter, ultimately, what the thing is--"In crook stories it is almost always the necklace," Hitchcock once said, "and in spy stories it is most always the papers"--it merely has to get the characters moving.
In Patrick's case, the MacGuffin is (as his title implies), a cradle. The protagonist, an amiable working-class midwesterner, has recently married, and his wife is eight months pregnant; she impulsively decides that their child must have the cradle that she herself slept in as an infant. The problem is that her mother ran out on her when she was seven, and nobody knows where she is. Protagonist agrees to the quest anyway; novel ensues.
For Somerville, this was a highly effective technique--he wrote a hundred pages in a week. Personally, I love plots like this (another Ithacan, Lamar Herrin, once did something similar in his amazing The Lies Boys Tell), and Patrick's reading of the opening chapter of The Cradle was terrific. The idea of the MacGuffin reminds us what a strange beast the creative imagination is--honestly, it doesn't matter what you use to get the motor running, and it may have no bearing on where you end up driving the thing. It just has to get you started.