Guest Author Steve O’Brien

Rebecca, from The Cadence Group, is stopping by with an old friend.  It’s been a year since he was last here but is visiting today to talk about his latest novel.  Welcome back, Steve O’Brien!!


Steve O’Brien is an author and attorney. Redemption Day is his third novel. His prior works, Elijah’s Coin and Bullet Work, have been recipients of multiple literary awards. Since its release, Elijah’s Coin has been added to the reading curriculum in multiple secondary schools throughout the US and has been incorporated in a university ethics course. Steve is a graduate of the University of Nebraska and The George Washington University Law School. He lives in Washington, DC.


Find the MacGuffin

As I read works by other writers I like to play a game.

I call it find the MacGuffin.

If you aren’t familiar with the term MacGuffin, please don’t drive through a McDonald’s and try to order one. They won’t know what you are talking about.

Imagine you are at a play or other performance. At the opening someone walks out and places a paper bag on the stage. There is clearly something in the bag, but unknown to the audience. The play goes on and occasionally one of the actors will point to or mention the paper bag, but never identify what is in it.

That is the MacGuffin.

The audience tries to follow the play, but their minds keep coming back to the paper bag. What’s in it? How does it relate to the story?

Near the end of the performance the audience wants to run up on stage and rip it open. If something doesn’t happen with the MacGuffin by the third act, a patron from the front row probably will.

A MacGuffin is a film and literary plot technique. It is a thing to be desired or to be feared. Ultimately it is the object of search or interest in a story. Properly used it crops up as a mechanical device in a story and drives the plot.

In a heist movie, the MacGuffin is the diamond necklace. In a spy story, the MacGuffin is the locked briefcase or the damning document.

Some think that emotions can be MacGuffins, but I believe that a MacGuffin must be an object or something tangible. Alfred Hitchcock had a room in his studio where they kept MacGuffins. True to him, I don’t believe you can put an emotion in a studio room.

Some MacGuffins are obvious–the Maltese Falcon, the Holy Grail from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, the Ring in Lord of the Rings.

There can also be a series of MacGuffins such as Dan Brown used in The DaVinci Code: Vitruvian Man, a Finbonacci sequence, the safe deposit box, the Rose Line, a cryptex, and ultimately the book’s own Holy Grail. The DaVinci Code is a veritable parade of MacGuffins.

In Redemption Day I used a fractional reserve note as an opening MacGuffin. This was followed by the Posse Comitatus Blue Book, and videotapes of the Supreme Court Justice, Silvio Caprelli.

More important than the actual MacGuffin is how the writer reveals to the reader — and when.

If over explained, the tension bleeds away. If not enough spot light on it, the hook won’t be set deeply enough. In the example with the paper bag at the performance, the curiosity can set the reader into a near frenzy.

MacGuffins must be balanced on the razor’s edge and propel the story.

Contrary to some reviews, not all books are read in one sitting. A MacGuffin makes the reader come back and say “What the heck was that?” and “What will happen next?” It slams the reader back into the story. It demands attention.

MacGuffins can create their own backstory in addition to driving the plot. The MacGuffin is a means to slowly reveal information to the reader, like a fisherman letting out line from his reel. And like the fisherman, the writer must yank on the rod at the exact moment to land the MacGuffin in the reader’s psyche.

So as you are reading, try to find the MacGuffin and study how the author teases out the information about it.

So goes the MacGuffin, so goes the story.




Steve O’Brien bases his new novel on the historical events and documented teachings of the Posse Comitatus – an anti-government militia group in the 1980’s that tried to convince farmers that banks could not lawfully foreclose on their properties. Their beliefs led to the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on a date of significance to the group—April 19.

In Redemption Day, the Posse Comitatus has returned, reinvigorated and inspired by the economic downturn and anger over government intrusion. The Posse seeks to not only wreak havoc on the country, but to actually change the political landscape. In their effort to “take back the country,” they kidnap a Supreme Court Justice. With money extorted from a government contractor desperate to win back a domestic terrorism contract, redemption day unfolds.



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