Hidden Transaction Scenes

Usually “transaction scenes” make you think about shopkeeper and a customer, haggling about the price of an item. But there are scenes I think of as “hidden transaction scenes”, because the characters are bargaining for something. They are devilishly masked transactions, just using a different currency.

  • Police and suspect interrogation scene.
    Will the suspect cave in and give a confession?
  • Courtroom scene.
    Will the defendant get a guilty or not guilty verdict?
  • Sports match scene.
    Which character will win the game?

The characters are bargaining for a Yes/No outcome: a confession, a verdict, or a won match. We can get into a trap of thinking that the scene is what the outcome is. It isn’t! The scene is the reaction to the outcome.

In real-life, we are infatuated by why we get a certain outcome. There are facts. But in improv, these facts are made-up! They have no importance. You can easily change the facts to make the outcome whatever you want, so the outcome doesn’t really matter. Worse, sometimes we get confused which Yes/No is correct and we get into choice paralysis.

The truth is either outcome is playable. Because what matters is the reaction. That’s when the scene becomes about

Two strategies

Sometimes we caught in hidden transaction scenes. That’s fine. When I find myself in these hidden transactions, there are two different ways I might try to pull myself out of quicksand.

Strategy 1: Declare right away who’s going to win the match.

I like this. Get that out of the way, so we can focus on the people, rather than the details of the transaction. There are two notable movie scenes I can talk about: Dark Knight (2008) and Seven (1995).

In Dark Knight, Batman interrogates Joker for information about hostages. Joker freely gives this information, but the scene is captivating because it is not about the interrogation. It is about them trading the philosophy of their ways. The usual “ways of interrogation” is not the focus here, even Joker quips “You have absolutely nothing to threaten me with”.

Joker is happy to give information to Batman, but the scene is about their philosophical differences

In Seven, we were preparing ourselves for a lengthy detective case-solving movie. But instead of a long-drawn transaction detail movie, the killer showed up and confessed to everything. This movie isn’t about solving clues, but about the how the two detectives (played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) react to the gruesome crimes, and the why the killer does them.

Seven (1995) with a shockingly too-early reveal makes us face the emotional responses.

Strategy 2: Delay outcome, but put what’s at stake.

This is the more traditional way of filmmaking. You build your character’s background before they face the final challenge. This is probably every sports movie out there.

Sometimes you have a scene without a weak bite even though it’s a high stakes situation. This is get sucked in to the bargaining part too quickly. If you didn’t invest enough about the characters, you don’t care what the outcome is, no matter how the transaction develops. Instead, make the outcome matter by making it high-stakes for the character. Whether the outcome is a Win or a Loss will severely affect the character. This builds the tension of the transaction.

In the Queen’s Gambit (2020), the match with Beth’s nemesis is important. NOT because of the complexity of the game (though it is a beautifully chosen game by Garry Kasparov), but because we know this is big for Beth.

Queen’s Gambit (2020) invests on Beth Harmon for many episodes to make us care for her.

Dedicated to Pranavi Pullagummi.



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On Cloud Nine

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.