The Making of a Thriller, Part I: Bits, Pieces, and MacGuffins

Two scenes and a thought experiment, that’s where my latest technothriller, Dualism, started.

For a while there after I finished writing Singularity, I thought I was done writing, period. I’d exorcised this incubus of an idea that’d had me hagridden for the better part of seven years (you can check out my “Accidental Author” blog on GoodReads for the whole spine-chilling story), by the simple expedient of getting it out of my head and onto paper. Only …

Only the problem was that Jon Knox and Marianna Bonaventure — who’d started out as little more than clotheshorses on which to hang the fabric of the plot — had, by the time I was done, grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I’d become voyeuristically entangled in their interpersonal dynamics, the evolution of their relationship, the whole question they raised and embodied of whether relationships are even possible in this post-modern era (in case you hadn’t guessed, the title of that first book and now this one too are allusions to stages in their growth toward couplehood). And so, just as I’d written Singularity “to see how things came out in the end,” so too was I motivated to write Dualism.

Only there was an additional problem: namely, I had no idea what Dualism was about. What I did have was these two scenes. Without telling you which ones they were (that would be too easy), I can say this about them: One was very old, perhaps the first piece of creative writing I’d done since Freshman English, and that prompted by a loss that metaphorically kicked my heart out of my ribcage, like the hind hoof of one of Larry Niven’s tripodal Puppeteers. The other, comprising the first lines I’d written specifically with Dualism in mind, was evoked by a favorite song: Andrea Boccelli’s Il Mare Calmo della Sera (The Calm Sea of Evening).

So, two scenes, not altogether unrelated, though damned if I could figure how to relate them.

And the thought experiment? That’s the oldest thread of all. I’ll unravel it in a bit more detail later. For now, suffice it to say that, in the end, it was the key to weaving those two scenes together, and much else besides.

Now, all I needed was a MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin Hunt

What is a MacGuffin anyway? Well, the man who popularized the term, the thriller-master himself, Alfred Hitchcock, used to explain it with a story about two men on a train. One of them notices that the other has stowed a strange-looking object up in the baggage rack and asks about it. “Oh, that’s a MacGuffin,” comes the response, which naturally only prompts the further question “What’s a MacGuffin?” “It’s an apparatus for hunting lions on the moors of Scotland,” the proud MacGuffin-owner explains. “But,” the first man objects, “there are no lions on the moors of Scotland.” “Well, then,” replies the second, “that’s no MacGuffin.”

All of which was a roundabout way of saying that a MacGuffin is nothing at all, a fiction, a figment of the imagination. It’s also the name Hitchcock gave to any plot device about which all the characters in a story care very much, but the audience cares not at all. The textbook example is Hitchcock’s own Notorious, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman. Though the film itself wouldn’t premiere until 1946, the script was already under development in 1944 and — here’s the kicker — it featured uranium ore as its MacGuffin nearly a year before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. When the studio raised understandable concerns about this particular plot-point, Hitchcock told them “the gimmick was unimportant,” and blithely offered to substitute industrial diamonds for the radioactives.

One MacGuffin, in other words, was pretty much as good as another.

That was then, this is now. Blame it on that selfsame atom bomb, perhaps, or on decades of Cold War, or the Global War on Terrorism, or maybe just an increasing sense of the precariousness of existence in general, but modern readers and moviegoers seem to have lost the ability to distance themselves so nonchalantly from the perils depicted on the screen or printed on the page. Nowadays, we have come to expect thrillers where we do care about the device that drives the plot — not least because said device represents a credible threat to our nation, our way of life, or, best of all, our whole world.

This was the context in which I went hunting for Dualism’s MacGuffin. Nor did it help that Singularity, the first book in the Archon Sequence, had steered a course between the Scylla of nuclear holocaust and the Charybdis of a primordial black hole poised to swallow the planet. Kind of set a high bar for coming up with an encore.

Well, as alluded to above, there’s no end of credible existential threats in our modern world. Did you know, for instance, that electromagnetic pulses generated by high-altitude nuclear detonations could fry the entire US power grid, leading to widespread starvation and potential societal collapse? Or that Iran has been laying the groundwork for just such an attack?

I actually wrote a few trial chapters around that EMP MacGuffin, but wound up setting them aside. Devastating as such a scenario could be, it all seemed too — how do I put this? — pedestrian. Deadly, yes, but not enough of a “Wow!” Factor.

In the end, it was rather the very subject matter that Dualism engaged, the philosophical conundrum on which the plot turns, that pointed a way forward.

But that’s a story for next time. Watch this space!

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