I’ve often found that transactions scenes—those in which one person is selling something to another—go nowhere. Players perform transaction scenes all the time, probably because transactions are so common in daily life and because audience suggestions are often objects you find in stores. If the suggestion is “shoes”, you’ll get a shoe store scene 9 times out of 10. Intuitively, I try to avoid such scenes if I can, but I’ve never instructed anyone to avoid them.
When I took UCB’s beginner level class last month, they explicitly advised us to avoid transaction scenes because “the scene is over once the transaction is done.” I thought, man, you can do that? You can just tell people not to do transaction scenes? Why didn’t I think of that?
That got me thinking a lot about transaction scenes and why they tend to be dull. I’d like to fix them, because sometimes your longform calls for a new pair of shoes. Also, is it realistic to expect everyone you play with to stop doing transaction scenes? Can you give that note to someone after the show—”Dude, that scene was bad because it was transactional in nature”?
First, I’d like to look at the reason that UCB gives for avoiding transactions. Must a transaction scene end with the transaction, and is that a bad thing? Well, when the transaction is completed, it does bring an action to a close. An action ending is a like a loop closing, Keith Johnstone shrewdly points out; you’re back at the beginning. That doesn’t mean that the scene can’t have a sequel. If the clerk tells you that the x-ray glasses will work well at the sorority, then we’d like to see the sorority. The end of the transaction might typically end the scene, but it doesn’t have to end the story. Regardless, I don’t think a built-in scene ending is a bad thing. If the scene is going well and you’re not ready to end the scene, don’t complete the transaction. If the scene isn’t going well, you have an easy out.
Here are the reasons I think transaction scenes are difficult:
- The two character completing the transaction are typically strangers. They have no shared history, so nothing to draw upon. The only thing they have in common is a cold transaction.
- The scene will tend towards being about the object being purchased, rather than the relationship between the characters; when you’re buying something, you ask questions about the thing, not about the vendor.
- The stakes are very low. Discovering the object’s price is inflated is not much to hang a scene on.
I think traditional strategies can fix the problem of transaction scenes. Focus on the relationship between the characters rather than the thing in the scene. Even though clients and vendors rarely develop interesting relationships on any given day, this is not just any given day in the life of the characters, it’s the day the players are choosing to show the audience so it must be special!
Once you have a relationship, there’s something at stake. The fact that the scene will end with the transaction can actually up the tension in the scene. If the client and vendor have fallen in love over size 9s, their imminent parting of ways will have everyone on the edge of their seats.