A MacGuffin is a plot device that motivates the story's characters, but whose specific nature is unimportant to the overall plot.

But is there a term for a plot device that is a primary motivator for the audience, but that the characters are not invested in, or are even oblivious to?

For example, at the beginning of Fear The Walking Dead, the audience knows what is going on, but the characters are otherwise occupied. In fact, the primary attraction is that, we know what is going to happen, and we want to see how the characters will deal with the unfolding realization of it.

Is there a term for this?

  • Precognition ?.
    – wbogacz
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 1:31
  • Normally it's a famous actor/ess or whomever is directing it.
    – cde
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 1:34
  • I've heard that described as audience omnipotence.
    – Ben Plont
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 5:34
  • 5
    I'm not sure if this can actually be called an opposite of a MacGuffin, but it's an interesting concept anyway. Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 9:32
  • I don't think this type of concept has an opposite per se.
    – DA.
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 13:01

4 Answers 4


Alfred Hitchcock would call this "suspense" and I would agree with him.

Here's the Wikipedia definition:

Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment. The term most often refers to an audience's perceptions in a dramatic work. Suspense is not exclusive to fiction. It may operate whenever there is a perceived suspended drama or a chain of cause is left in doubt, with tension being a primary emotion felt as part of the situation.

In the kind of suspense described by film director Alfred Hitchcock, an audience experiences suspense when they expect something bad to happen and have (or believe they have) a superior perspective on events in the drama's hierarchy of knowledge, yet they are powerless to intervene to prevent it from happening. Films having a lot of suspense belong in the thriller genre.

"Alfred Hitchcock: The Difference Between Mystery & Suspense"

From the video:

Mystery is an intellectual process, like in a "who-done-it". But suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.

And, on the difference between suspense and surprise:

There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!" [emphasis added]

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

That constant sense of "how are they going to address this situation they don't even know exists"... that's suspense.

While these definitions generally relate to thriller-type films, I would argue that they can relate to a wider variety of films as well. For example in a rom-com:

We have a couple, Jesse and Drew.

  • Jesse cheats on Drew but Drew has no clue.
  • The audience is aware of the cheating because it occurred in the film.
  • The audience is left in suspense wondering whether Drew will ever find out and what the reaction will be.

We, as the audience, experience that "feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension and anxiety", waiting to discover if Drew will ever know the truth.


I think you may be looking for Dramatic Irony:

Irony that is inherent in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play.

  • Good one, but it's limited to irony only. Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 13:01
  • @ChanandlerBong The irony is that people who are not participating in events (audience) know more about what is going on than people who are (characters). It is irony by definition.
    – buckminst
    Commented Aug 17, 2020 at 0:40

I believe you're describing Omniscient POV:

‘Omniscient POV’ in film means: a point of view outside any of the story’s characters. The audience knows and sees everything that is relevant to know about everybody in the story


I don't know that I'd call this the opposite of a MacGuffin, though.


In screenwriting, the ideal situation is that always, anything shown in the screen has to be meaningful for the story or the characters. If its not, then it could simply be erased. In the case of the MacGuffin, as a device, is important at the beginning, but while the story evolves, loses his relevance.

In that terms, maybe the opposite device of the MacGuffin could be the Chekhov Gun:

"The Chekhov Gun is actually reference to a literary technique known as Chekhov's gun, whereby an element is introduced early in the story, but its significance does not become clear until later in the narrative. The concept is named after Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who mentioned several variants of the concept in letters."

So, the MacGuffin is important at a early stage.
The Chekhov Gun has late importance for the story.
Both give the characters a new impulse, but at different moments: early and late in the story.

  • 2
    I would recommend using a source slightly more reputable than the Archer Wiki. I say this because that version of the definition doesn't seem to agree with other versions, like the actual Wikipedia article about it.
    – Catija
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 4:45
  • 1- ArcherWiki... is that bad? 2- Compared to the wikipedia definition, i think the idea applies in the same way (trying to avoid confusion) a screenwriting device that indicates an element that is irrelevant at the beggining, but at certain point, advanced in the story, takes relevance... "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there"
    – Gonvar
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 4:59
  • 2
    I didn't say the definition was inapplicable based on the Wikipedia article, only that it doesn't match the definition on the Archer Wiki... The Archer wiki cites no actual sources for its information, so it sounds like someone pulled the definition out of the air, so, no... not a good source.
    – Catija
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 5:02
  • 1
    There's nothing wrong with it as a source for questions about Archer... but you can see there's no source for the information... if it cited one, it would be OK but it doesn't, which means that someone made the info up themselves.
    – Catija
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 5:07
  • 3
    Why the Archer Wiki at all? I mean, it's not that the real Wiki doesn't treat that term either. Why Archer, why not the Star Wars Wiki, the it's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Wiki or the Miami Vice Wiki? It just seems completely arbitrary to even get the idea of looking that term up in the Archer Wiki. This connection is not entirely clear to me, which is unfortunate since this seems to be an otherwise quite interesting answer.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 13:49

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .