The Alfred Hitchcock Secret to
Compelling Content and Copy

image of Alfred Hitchcock

The McGuffin has been a powerful storytelling device for a long time. It was Alfred Hitchcock who popularized both its use and the name that sounds like it should be on a dollar menu.

The McGuffin has a cool job: to keep the plot, character, or situation rolling along. It draws us into the story and drives the action. The McGuffin is often an object of high value, which everyone covets. It can be ambiguous, entirely undefined, generic, or left open to interpretation.

Remember the suitcase in “Pulp Fiction?” Classic McGuffin. Though it showed up a few times throughout the film, and was important enough to get a handful of people peppered with bullets, we never actually saw what was in the suitcase.

And consider “The Maltese Falcon,” one of the most famous McGuffins of all time. Though the falcon in question drives the entire story and moves us from scene to scene, we never actually see it at all.

That is what’s cool about the McGuffin. Its purpose is served so long as it moves the story along. In many stories, by the time we should be demanding to know what the McGuffin actually is, we have forgotten about it entirely. That’s because we’ve been deftly redirected to the author’s true purpose.

If the author executes the McGuffin well, you’ll barely notice the technique. And that’s how it should be.

How the McGuffin can make you money

Writing online to build your business means you are directing the story. Whether you want people to download your product, subscribe to your newsletter, or hire you for $250 an hour, you must drive them to that decision.

The McGuffin is the wind that will sail a prospect’s ship into your harbor. Your offer is the anchor.

There’s a good chance you’re already using the McGuffin without even realizing it.

While talking about your highly productive methods for moving mountains and getting things done, aren’t you really laying the stage for your new How to Move Mountains and Get Things Done! info product?

When you’re telling interesting stories about your life as a freelancer, aren’t you really showing how terrific an experience your customers are having?

(If not, you might want to think about changing that.)

The engaging stories about your topic are the McGuffin — the interesting, attention-focusing “grabber” that pulls your readers in.

But where they go once they’re there is up to you.

Handle with care

Many poorly written novels and films show the McGuffin can be horribly mishandled. If you misuse the McGuffin, you will leave your prospect feeling unsatisfied at best and betrayed at worst.

Don’t promise the beach and then drive to the desert just because there’s sand. It’s fine to shift gears after you’ve brought a reader in with your fascinating McGuffin. But the place you’re bringing your readers still needs to make sense, and to deliver an experience she wants.

If you surprise your prospect with a smile, you will likely keep her coming back for more. Startle her with disappointment and she will leave and never come back.

At its best, the McGuffin is a pleasure and can help the audience to enjoy the ride. I don’t hold it against Tarantino for never showing me what’s in the suitcase, any more than I’d hold it against Brian for letting me know about Thesis after I came here for some advice on my headlines.

I love “Pulp Fiction” more with every viewing, and my affection for Thesis deepens with every site my business builds.

I don’t mind the change in direction, because I’ve been led somewhere I want to go.

This story about the McGuffin is, of course, a McGuffin itself. My real intent? To show an interesting technique that both helps other writers and, of course, gathers more copywriting clients for my own business.

How about you? What curiosity-provoking, desire-inducing McGuffin could you be writing about on your blog that would drive your readers to take action? And once they’ve shown up, where will your copy take them next?

About the Author: Sean Platt writes direct response copy, as well as helping authors write, publish and promote their book. Follow him on Twitter.

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  1. Hey Sean,

    I never realized our own personal experience can be a McGuffin.

    That by sharing a fascinating story where we accomplished or overcame something — and one that readers can relate to — we can actually be pre-selling on a product that can help people do the same.

    They’re waiting with baited breath to see *how* you did it, and then you reveal that it’s all in the product.

    Of course, like you said, you must handle with care. You don’t want to piss people off by withholding information. Rather, gently ease them into wanting to know more to where buying your product is the obvious choice.

    Like watching the Pulp Fiction trailer for the first time (or any effective trailer, for that matter).

    Just enough of the McGuffin is shown in the minute and a half that you HAVE to go see the whole movie. You don’t feel cheated but intrigued.

    Horror trailers do a good job in this respect. We see the bad things that are happening, but we don’t see what the cause of it is. We HAVE to go see the movie now. To find out, what the heck is causing these people to scream, drown, die, run?

    I don’t have any McGuffin’s to share at this point (at least none I’m conscious of), so I just wanted to thank you for implanting this useful nugget in my head. How I can use a personal story combined with a McGuffin to effectively sell in the future.

    Best,
    Oleg

    PS. I lol’d like a little school girl at “Don’t promise the beach and then drive to the desert just because there’s sand.” What an awesome line.

  2. Thanks as always, Oleg!

    I would add, though, that you DO have a McGuffin. We all do. Our stories make us unique. You have a story about art or music that is compelling to your audience that will make them hang on every word. All you’ve gotta do is find it.

  3. My favorite McGuffin is in Repo Man. Even by the standards of completely arbitrary McGuffins, that one stands out.

    Johnny B. Truant had an interesting post on Ittybiz the other day about the fact that his blog mainly exists to show people he’s an interesting and funny person, and then his more practical content is usually guest posted on other blogs. It’s an interesting model, I think I should fire it up for my Remarkable Communication blog (which hasn’t seen fresh content from me in ages, as Copyblogger’s getting all my ideas!).

  4. Sean… That’s a completely different perspective than anything I’ve heard… Although it makes perfect sense… Our blog posts are stories that entertain…

    The one statement that really grabs my attention is this:

    “The engaging stories about your topic are the McGuffin — the interesting, attention-focusing “grabber” that pulls your readers in.”

    Great stuff bro…

  5. Thanks for pointing out this technique Sean. I’ll have to think about how I could weave it into some stories on my blog. I can see how it would really draw the reader in and make them curious as to how I accomplished what I did.

  6. @Sean – Great article. Reminds me of how M. Night Shyamalan used the color red in the movie The Sixth Sense.

    @Sonia – Johnny’s article was very interesting. We’ll take your great content no matter where it is :)

  7. Man, we’ve been calling them “hooks” and “angles” for 4 years, and Sean comes along with the McGuffin angle and gets all the credit. ;)

  8. Sonia: Though I’ve seen 83.2% of all movies made before the birth of my daughter, I’ve (shockingly) never seen Repo Man. I know, right?

    I loved Johnny’s post, and totally agree. It took me a year to realize that’s how I needed to be using Writer Dad. Sometimes I’m more dim than others. :)

    Brian: Thanks, man. I appreciate it. To be fair, I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before, I’m just tying it to a cool director with a pouty lip.

    Chrystal: You’ve got one of those niches that’s instant. Anyone who is a parent can instantly relate to the many stories you already have in your bag. Pull ‘em out and get to typing!

    Mike: Thanks! Yeah, I loved his use of red in Sixth Sense. Shyamalan was a fine student of the McGuffin. It really is too bad that he dragged it behind a shed, beat it to a bloody husk, then left it to rot in the high noon sun.

    But that’s a post for a different day: “Warning! Is Your Ego CRUSHING Your Writing?”

    Brian: Ha, it’s true. Same with Hitchcock. He didn’t invent the technique, but he did get an awful lot of the credit.

  9. BrianC… Do you think “hooks” and “angles” are the same as “McGuffins?”

    Based off of what I’ve read and studied (including your blogs).. From my perspective hooks and angles are more WIIFMs…

    While a McGuffin (which I’ve only read this post and the Wiki link) is more of a piece of a story that grabs a reader’s attention, not necessarily giving the reader a WIIFM… But, giving the reader something to be interested in.

    I’m really curious about your perspective on this to make sure I’m not confusing everything? Thanks…

  10. @Sean, seriously, dude, you have to see Repo Man. Plus you have to see it three times, because the first two you’ll just be saying, “Um, huh?”

  11. Brian, I see a hook as something compelling paired with the reader benefit, like using Alfred Hitchcock to deliver an online copywriting lesson. That’s the same as a McGuffin in this sense.

    Unless I’m misunderstanding. Sean?

  12. Sonia: LOL, I already put it on the queue like ten minutes ago. Yes, that’s my morning cup of dork.

    Brians: Clark said it well, a hook is something paired with a reader benefit. A reason to click, a reason to read the first sentence, then a reason to continue all the way through to the end, where the inevitable call to action.

    The “What’s in it for me?” can be a story. We all like to be entertained, so if the story is compelling, we will keep reading.

    You know the Blues Traveler son, “Hook”?

    “Because the hook brings you back
    I ain’t tellin’ you no lie
    The hook brings you back
    On that you can rely”

    The hook will grab the reader’s attention, then hold it.

    This is essentially the same job as the McGuffin.

  13. I will have to agree with Sonia there, Repo Man is great… superb special effects as well :)

    I will have to say that this is the first time I’ve heard of the McGuffin. I’m definitely going to start working that idea into my copy a little more deliberately.

    Of course you want to show your reader how they would feel with your product in their life, but by giving them the whole idea of something bigger than them to hold on to, is a very strong angle to take.

    Copyblogger keeps reminding me how much more their is to learn. Thanks everyone,

    -Joshua Black

  14. Sean and Brian… Thanks for responding… Maybe I’m a little dense here… From what I’m gathering… Would it be safe to say- “All Hooks are McGuffins and all McGuffins are Hooks?”

  15. I’m a huge fan of old movies, especially Hitch. If you can tear yourself away from the plot, you can see how the author and the director get at every sense you have, including fears your didn’t even know you had, to reel you in.

    The best part about old movies is that you very rarely see the monster (eg., the original The Haunting), you had to create it in your mind from your own fears…a much more terrifying prospect, I think, than anything Hollywood could put on the screen. The old radio shows like The Shadow and Suspense were masters at this. They had you sold on their plot and there wasn’t even a screen to watch.

    The same holds true today regarding any well-orchestrated sale. It wriggles its way in, appealing to, and touching all the potential client’s senses, thus creating a decision to buy long before any call to action has been announced.

    This places the “salesman” in a very responsible position, especially in the context of today’s social media. You can play on people’s emotions because you truly have a product that can better their situation, or you can become that used car salesman out to make a buck.

    I know which path I’d choose to follow because I like to be able to sleep at night.

    Great article, thanks for writing it!

  16. Brian, I think that’s fair to say. I think Sean’s characterization of a hook as a McGuffin is brilliant… it makes it easier to understand what it is.

    The hook isn’t the point, the benefit (lesson) or desired action is. The hook just makes everything more interesting, enjoyable, and easier to understand.

    This article itself is an example of the lesson it teaches. Well done.

  17. Brian… Thanks… I understand… The best part of this post is my vocabulary has expanded… ;-) J/K….

    I agree, the desired action is the point… After going back over the article again replacing the word “McGuffin” with “hook”, everything is crystal clear…

    Sean, I’ll echo Brian… “This article itself is an example of the lesson it teaches. Well done.”

  18. Sean – Great article and clever ending. I love how you tie writing to pop culture in ways that make techniques even more interesting.

    As for the Blues Traveler song, I love how the song essentially lays out its intent and dares you not to fall under its spell.

    ‘It doesn’t matter what I say
    So long as I sing with inflection
    That makes you feel that I’ll convey
    Some inner truth of vast reflection
    But I’ve said nothing so far
    And I can keep it up for as long as it takes
    And it don’t matter who you are
    If I’m doing my job then it’s your resolve that breaks’

  19. Interesting stuff here, Sean. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d learn what a McGuffin is. But now I do. Sweet!

  20. Great story, Sean!

    Love Hitchcock and love the McGuffin!

    I suppose in “Vertigo,” the McGuffin wasn’t an object…Maybe it was the mystery of why Kim Novak’s character was doing such strange things?

  21. Joshua: Hey there Underdog Millionaire, Copyblogger reminds me of the same thing, usually Monday through Friday. :)

    Carol: Totally. And another place modern filmmakers have it all wrong is in their trailers. I do not need to see the entire movie smashed into two minutes. I want to be teased. There are some filmmakers who still know how to do it. The trailer for Christopher Nolan’s Inception is awesome and vague and then awesome again.

    I also realize that the filmmakers rarely have say in how the trailers are cut, but sometimes they do.

    I love Robert Zemekis, but really disliked the trailer for “What Lies Beneath,” his own ode to Hitch. Ruined the movie before the popcorn. He, however, loved the trailer. And I understand why he did. Those trailers work as far as getting people into the theater on opening weekend, and a big opening weekend is needed for a film to have any legs these days. Yet it can also cut the legacy of a movie at the knees.

    Wow, I totally digressed. That’s another post on short term gain and long term loss.

    Brian: Thanks, Brian. I had a lot of fun writing this one. Eminem, Hitchcock, Tarantino; all are the McGuffin in action – tying your interests to the readers, then taking them down the slide.

    Thanks for the opportunity.

    Brian: Thanks, man. I appreciate it.

    Dave: Well, I do love the pop culture. And thank you for giving me the whole “Hook” thing with Blue’s Traveler that made Brian JUY’s earlier comment easy to answer.

    Bamboo: Well, I’m glad your wildest dreams don’t include learning about a McGuffin, because that would be a terrible waste of the REM cycle. I use mine to fantasize about driving in Bentley limo being pulled by a team of endangered species (mostly ostriches and tigers) while lighting my Cuban cigars with the Magna Carta.

    Derek: Yup, except I might add that more specifically the McGuffin was Carlotta Valdez.

  22. @ Sean: haha… You’re alright.

  23. Building a house isn’t exciting. Watching an episode of This Old House is though.

    The McGuffin is everywhere.

    Good write Sean.

  24. The Maltese falcon DID show up in the last scene of the film. “It’s the stuff dreams are made of.”

  25. Great article, the briefcase in pulp fiction had Marcelas
    Wallace’s (not sure of the spelling) Soul in it. Believe it or not, Pulp Fiction was based on religion.

    John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson were angels sent to recover his soul. Ever wondered why they never got shot in that scene when they were showered with lead from a distance of 2 metres.

    And lets not forget the Wolf man, the guy that can get everything done, fix everything. Gee I wonder who the wolf man is representing?

  26. Great article! I will definitely have to add this technique to some of my posts.

  27. Thanks for sharing this great piece. Gotta remember this when writing stuff forthcomingly…

  28. Sean, I could write about the Sausage and Egg McGuffin I had at the Golden Arches this morning. I really should have handled it with care, because now I have a grease stain on my shirt.

    Or did I miss the point?

  29. Reading the comments is as interesting as the post itself. =) Love the discussion about McGuffin.

  30. Great post Sean. I pop in to Copyblogger every few days and I’m never disappointed. Searched around on the term ‘McGuffin’. Found out it is equally named MacGuffin, McGuffin, and maguffin. Either way, it’s a great storytelling technique. Thanks for sharing.

  31. great story telling, inspiring someone to make an open and able to reach what we are going.

  32. Really nice idea, and I agree whole-heartedly with Carol that the big mistake horror movies make is to show the Big Bad (too early). Suddenly all the tension that’s been established dissipates and you’re just left with something…ordinary.

    Said beautifully here: “If you surprise your prospect with a smile, you will likely keep her coming back for more. Startle her with disappointment and she will leave and never come back.”

    I guess the point of finding your McGuffin is to make your offer or your content extraordinary, right?

  33. I confess. I’ve never heard of a MacGuffin. But I love Hitchcock and know exactly what you are talking about. Thanks for sharing it.

  34. Isn’t using kind of McGuffin approach what some shady marketers use to lure people in… You know… there’s this secret to compelling content, but all I see is McGuffins, or actually don’t see :) And it reminds me of muffins, which is definitely not good when I’m hungry!

    When done right, the reader/viewer will see whatever he/she really wants in the McGuffin, signing up, buying and all that and then realizing there is no secret. Apart from the secret that there is not secret, which is not a secret at all.

    But this is not exactly what you wrote about, however, if one is not careful, the McGuffin becomes the One Ring, which everyone will desire, but if achieved, will corrupt all but the best of them. With great power, comes great responsibility, and all those other cool movie lines that fit this comment.

  35. Som’bitch, I was already doing this and didn’t even realize.

  36. Shane: Thanks Shane, exactly.

    Jane: You are right. I watched it just last week, after I wrote the post. Oops. :)

    Thomas: Tarantino’s never said that right? Or if he did he said it while all hopped up and saying a dozen other contradictory things?

    Barbara: Thanks!

    Hakan: My pleasure.

    Selfish: I’m following this post up with “What the McDLT Can Teach You About Online Marketing.”

    Jmokrain: Thanks, I’m glad you’re enjoying them.

    Sam: I had a hard time figuring out which spelling to go with. Then I had to clean up the copy so they were all the same, as I wasn’t consistent. Glad you liked it.

    Aglo: Thanks!

    Steve: Exactly!

    Jeff: My pleasure.

    Antti: If you feel ripped off by a movie, or a certain director, then you will make the choice not to see that movie (or work from that director) again. Yes, a bad McGuffin works, but it won’t keep working over and over. Use it well, and use it honestly, and you have people returning over and over again. Like the raving fans Hitch had for his entire career.

  37. @Sean Platt: Good comment on not going back if “tricked” by bad McGuffin, clarified it just right… btw, your writing and post sure did work and sent my head spinning with ideas = excellent.

  38. thanks ,
    i have now added something new to my story writing arsenal…

  39. This post is so true! In the beginning, my blog would only featured how-to tips and social media news post. But, when I started writing about my challenges as single mom jingling multiple responsibilities, I received more subscribers. When I posted a video on how I could not stand my braces, I also received an increase in traffic. That’s so amazing! People really want to hear the stories.

  40. The McGuffin? Never heard of it and every bit pleased I finally did!

    As far as Tarantino goes, he can keep his suitcase. I don’t care what’s in it. Really. I don’t. At all. :-)

  41. Funny take on the McGuffin. Nice!

    Hitchcock really was a master of branding: His silhouette, the music, his “good eeeevening”; these were all part of the Hitchcock brand.

  42. Thanks for the good advice. I hadn’t thought about how I want to direct people to what I am “selling”. I hadn’t thought that I might already be doing it, but need to organize it for myself.