One of the heroes has been captured by the bad guys. His friends know where he's being kept, but the dungeon lies deep within the villain's impenetrable fortress, surrounded by guards, and a good old-fashioned prison break simply won't do.
However, it just so happens that one of the opposition has been spotted wandering around outside Camp Good Guy, and was conveniently dumb enough to get caught. Now there are two captives, one in each camp.
So what do the two opposing sides do in this situation? Each has something the other wants, and neither is willing to let up unless they can find a way to use the situation to their advantage. So they agree to trade hostages. They meet up at a certain location where the exchange will take place, both prisoners get to go free, and everyone's happy. Right?
Usually the captured member of the other team is no ordinary Mook. He may be someone who is important to the villain in some way, someone he cares about or needs in order to fulfill his Evil Plan, otherwise the other side would not bother with trying to get him back. Heroes usually don't need this kind of motivation to rescue a captive comrade, as they generally need less of a reason to save people. A Messianic Archetype may risk both his life and the chance of giving up whatever advantage he may have had, coupled with letting a villain go free, in order to save a total stranger, although it's just as likely that the captive will be someone close to the hero in order to facilitate drama.
The exchange often involve both parties facing each other across a wide open area, with armed soldiers present or hidden in case the other party tries something. Each captive walks toward the other, they pass by each other in the center and proceed on to their own group. Often takes place on a bridge, since it marks the only crossing point of a natural barrier, such as a river or chasm, where two territories would typically be divided. It also gives both sides a clear view of each other as well as of the hostages in case anyone tries anything funny (providing there is no Ominous Fog), and can be symbolic for the hostages making their journey home.
Note that the downside of this agreement is, because Evil Is Petty, villains rarely make fair trades. While a hero will be bound to keep his word and make sure that the hostage is returned to the villain unharmed, the villain will often take the first opportunity to kill his hostage as soon as he gets what he wants, or to cause the heroes to walk into a trap, or find some other way to go back on his promise.
Cunning good guys or Anti Heroes may realize this and never intend to make a trade with the villain in the first place, or both sides may have the intention of screwing each other over, in which case the hostages themselves rarely have any say in the matter and may end up on the worse end of the deal.
- In Full Metal Panic!, Sousuke has to make the decision of trading his hostage for either Kaname or Tessa. He picks Tessa, knowing that Kaname can protect herself just fine, and her Action Girl instincts means that she'll mess up the bad guys plans by reacting in a way they don't expect.
- In Read or Die, Yomiko trades Joker for Nenene... only to learn that Wendy hadn't captured Nenene at all. She had just asked the British Library's resident Master of Disguise to impersonate Nenene for the exchange so that they could get Joker back.
- Among the many times that Lucky Luke has been taken prisoner by the Daltons, this only happened once in the album "The Daltons Trail". As the gang's brains Joe ended up arrested by the authorities because of his stupidity and Lucky Luke found himself captured by the three other Daltons because of Rantanplan's stupidity, the only solution that both sides can agree on is exchanging the desperado for the lawman. During the walk none try something as they can see each other but both are prepared for treachery, and the moment that the exchange is completed Joe and Luke barely manage to jump over at their sides as they simultaneously order them to shoot. And then Rantanplan appears in the middle which forces Averell and Luke to simultaneously shout at their allies to stop.
- In a Calvin and Hobbes storyline, Calvin "kidnaps" Susie's Binky Betsy doll and holds it for ransom. Susie retaliates by "kidnapping" Hobbes. Calvin ends up giving Susie both her doll back and a quarter in exchange for Hobbes.
- In the John Woo movie A Better Tomorrow, an exchange between Big Bad Ah Shing (who the first protagonist, Sung Tse Ho, has captured) and Ho's little brother Sung Tse Kit (the other protagonist, who Shing's mooks have at gunpoint) sets off the final battle of the movie.
- Bridge of Spies is based on the Abel/Powers exchange described under Truth in Television below.
- In the German film Canaris, Abwehr agent Althoff blows his cover while spying in France shortly before World War II, but is quickly returned home in exchange for a French spy who was caught in Germany.
- In Des hommes et des dieux, the group that kidnaps the monks demands the release of some of their members by the French authorities in return for the safe release of the monks. It never comes to pass, and the monks are killed.
- James Bond is exchanged for Zhao in Die Another Day.
- The Evil That Men Do. Holland has been hired to kill Torture Technician Molloch. He plans to lure Molloch out into the open by kidnapping his sister Claire, ostensibly for ransom. Molloch then gets his hands on the daughter of Holland's partner, and suggests a Prisoner Exchange instead. The problem is Claire is already dead, accidentally shot during the kidnapping.
- In the John Wayne film Rio Bravo, the heroes captured the brother of a bandit leader before the start of the movie, and the plot is driven by the bandit's schemes to rescue his brother before the US Marshall arrives. One such plot involves kidnapping a sheriff's deputy and trading him for the brother. Unusually for this trope, we never get any indication of whether or not the villains intend to play fair, as it's the heroes that play dirty and go in with every intention of leaving with both prisoners.
- Rio Lobo, the loose remake to the above-film also has one of these. At the climax Cardona has been captured to trade for Ketchum. The two of them both walk across an empty space between buildings. Cardona dives into a stream at the half way point where Phillips is waiting with guns, removing him from the line of fire, while McNally then tells Hendricks how Ketchum signed over all of the deeds they'd stolen, getting him shot by his own men.
- In Snow Day, Wayne is being held hostage by Snowplow Man. Meanwhile, the protagonists have Trudy, Snowplow Man's right-hand raven.
- When Taekwondo Strikes: After Louis is arrested and tortured for aiding La Résistance, resistance leader Li offers himself in exchange for Louis. Naturally, the villains kill Louis as soon as Li is in their grasp.
- In Mattimeo, the Redwallers capture General Ironbeak's three magpies, who are his only way of getting supplies, and trade them for the three Redwall hostages. Unfortunately, Ironbeak is smart enough to use the Prisoner Exchange as a cover while he sends his troops to steal as much food as they can from Redwall.
- In Les Misérables, Enjolras and Combeferre were about to suggest exchanging Javert for Jehan Prouvaire (who had been captured by the National Guard), but experienced something of a timing failure.
- in a more hostage for macguffin girl way, Farworld sees the dark circle kidnap Dew in order to trade her for Kyja, who is a 'guest' of the water elementals.
- There's a form of this in the X-Wing Series book Wedge's Gamble. There is an Imperial prison which Rogue Squadron can access, and a corrupt warden who will make deals. The prison has Rebels and scum of the galaxy, the latter group being the one that gives the warden more trouble. Said warden will let the Rogues retrieve some Rebels, but only if they also take some of that scum, too; namely members of Black Sun, a criminal empire which has dissolved. Little does he know that the Rogues are there for the scum so said scum can be recruited in a labyrinthine plot - the Rebels are just a nice bonus.
- The third Skulduggery Pleasant book has a scene on Dublin's Liffey Bridge, where the heroes have to trade Fletcher, the only person in the world who can open the gate for the Faceless Ones, to the Diablerie in exchange for Grand Mage Thurid Guild. Naturally, they all double-cross each other multiple times. The Diablerie has exactly one more double-cross than the heroes.
- When the Havenites and Manticorans discuss prisoner-of-war exchanges in the later Honor Harrington books, at least one character muses on what a fair exchange rate on prisoners would be, given that most battles had been stacked heavily in favor of the Manticorans' superior training and technology versus the Havenites' massive quantity of ships and troops.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire Catelyn suggests trading Jaime Lannister for her daughters, whom she supposes are being held hostage by the Lannisters. Given the patriarchal society of Westeros, this is not regarded as a good exchange and the idea is rejected even by her son Robb.
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy sees the Circus agreeing to exchange the highly-placed mole that Smiley has uncovered for their remaining agents in the Soviet bloc that haven't been shot. However, it falls through when the mole Haydon is killed, presumably by Jim Prideaux, his friend who he betrayed in an attempt to preserve his cover.
- Romance of the Three Kingdoms has several of these. The most infamous one is when Xiahou Shang is exchanged for Chen Shi at Mt. Ding Jun. While the exchange is taking place, Huang Zhong shoots Xiahou Shang in the back, which enrages Xiahou Yuan to the point of charging into battle. Which is exactly what Huang Zhong wanted.
- The Executioner. In "Brothers in Blood", Bolan is told to surrender in exchange for a captive. Realising Bolan won't give himself up without a guarantee, the Big Bad moves into an exposed position where Bolan can shoot him, though the muzzle flash would give away Bolan's position and get him killed in turn.
- At the end of Dale Brown's novel Fatal Terrain, Patrick and his comrades, who were forced to parachute out over Chinese territory after the final attack on Chinese ballistic missile silos and got captured for their trouble, are set free after the US trades some Chinese captives back.
- Near the end of Jason Matthews's Red Sparrow, Korchnoi is discovered as the SVR mole while Dominika is hidden by the CIA in Athens. A deal is struck so that Dominika would be returned to Moscow in exchange for Korchnoi's transfer to the West. The novel ends with Dominika returning to Russia safely, while the Americans are left with Korchnoi's body after he was assassinated just as he was about to make it across the bridge where the exchange occurred.
- Game of Thrones: Catelyn tries to pull one off with the Lannisters Jaime for her daughters but it doesn't go over too well. Still, due to Brienne's absolute loyalty, she's still trying to retrieve Sansa and Arya.
- Once on Get Smart KAOS kidnapped the Chief, so Control captured one of KAOS's agents to try to make a deal. KAOS captured another - back and forth until the only non-prisoners were Max and Sigfried, who arranged an exchange. KAOS got the last laugh when, during the exchange which was two big buses full of prisoners, KAOS captured the Control bus driver.
- One of these takes place in Heroes Volume 2. Bob, the head of The Company, kidnaps Claire. Claire's father, HRG, kidnaps Bob's daughter Elle, and attempts to trade her to get his daughter back.
- On Lost, Jack suggests offering the captive "Henry" in exchange for Walt, who has been kidnapped by the Others. Unfortunately, the Others had a different plan.
- Happens in Raumschiff GameStar, with Darth Mopp being exchanged for Communications Officer Mikkl. Naturally, while both sides are negotiating the conditions, the prisoners escape on their own...
- Happens without incident in the mini-series V: The Final Battle, when the Big Bad Diana exchanges Donovan's son for one of her own men. Of course, Diana has no reason to stop the exchange because she's "converted" Donovan's son into becoming her spy.
- Sark is swapped in this way early in the third season of Alias. A third party messes it up, a gunfight breaks out, and the bad guys make off with both hostages.
- In The X-Files Mulder performs such a trade between Scully and an alien clone he believes is his sister Samantha. In this case, though, it's the good guys who aren't playing fair and have a sniper standing by to shoot the kidnapper once both hostages are clear.
- In the Doctor Who episode "Time and the Rani" the Doctor trades the Rani for his companion Mel in this way.
- Subverted in an early episode of The Sandbaggers. The hero's girlfriend has been captured in East Germany and everyone agrees to a trade. He has a sniper shoot her down when she's halfway across so that the trade cannot take place.
- An episode of Magnum, P.I. involved an exchange which traded an American POW from Vietnam for the man who killed Magnum's wife.
- Season 2 of the 2010 Nikita saw a hostage exchange between Team Nikita and Division. Thanks to Percy being half the exchange, Nikita, and the show's Gambit Pileup (there's four factions playing) tendencies, the whole thing goes to hell. Only Team Nikita comes out ahead.
- Happened at the end of the Mission: Impossible episode "The Exchange", where Jim blatantly ignored the 'disavow if caught or killed' policy of the IMF and arranged to exchange an enemy spy for a captured Cinnamon. After the villain got his man back, he hosed Jim and Cinnamon down with a machine gun. But Jim had the last laugh: He was wearing body armor, the coat he slipped around Cinnamon's shoulders during the exchange was also armored, and before exchanging prisoners, he had successfully broken the enemy agent and gotten him to spill the beans on his entire network, rendering him worthless.
- There is a complicated example in Robin of Sherwood. The Sheriff of Nottingham captures Much the Miller's Son, but at the same time the Sheriff's nephew Martin is kidnapped and held to ransom by another outlaw. Robin has to rescue Martin from the other outlaw and then exchange him for Much. The actual exchange goes pear-shaped when the Sheriff tries to have Robin and Much ambushed immediately afterwards, which disgusts Martin so much that he leaves again with Robin.
- The Outer Limits (1995): In "Lithia", Major Mercer tries to trade Miranda, who's being held prisoner, for a woman who is from the enclave holding her. Sadly, the exchange turns into a battle, resulting in her and Ariel's deaths.
- Tehran: Mossad arranges to have one for Masoud by kidnapping Faraz's wife. However, it falls apart.
- In Inanna's Descent to the Netherworld, Inanna (later known as Ishtar) went to Irkalla to try and take over, but was defeated by her sister Ereshkigal. Meanwhile, above ground, nobody is having sex, plants are dying, etc. So Inanna arranges to be brought back to life, and Ereshkigal agrees to let her go...on one condition: that she find someone to take her place. Inanna searches for someone, but finds no one that she really wants to send to Irkalla. Then she sees her husband Dumuzi (Tammuz) lounging around under a tree instead of openly mourning for her. note This enrages Inanna because it makes her think he doesn't care about her, so in a fit of hurt and anger, she chooses him to go in her place. His sister begs her not to do that, saying Take Me Instead...and eventually Inanna regrets sending her husband down there. So an agreement is made: Dumuzi lives in Irkalla for six months, and his sister switches with him for the next six. While he's down there, nothing grows, but while he's with Inanna, everything is allowed to grow again.
- Discussed in Antonio Vivaldi's opera Scanderbeg. Sultan Murad has captured Scanderbeg's wife and father-in-law, while Scanderbeg's general Count Vrana has captured the Sultan's only daughter. Scanderbeg suggests they make an exchange, however, the Sultan continuously refuses for no apparent reason other than Historical Villain Upgrade.
- In Covert Action, this option is available to players that get captured. You can opt to wait a several hours to escape instead.
- Red Dead Redemption uses this. Norman Deek is being traded for the Ship Tease, and surprisingly enough, they don't want the prisoner back.
- Trading a hostage for one of your partners in crime is strongly encouraged in PAYDAY: The Heist.
- In Call of Juarez: The Cartel, the protagonists intend to exchange Juarez's son for Jessica Stone. Alvarez shoots both at the exchange.
- During Dm C Devil May Cry, Kat is taken prisoner by Mundus, and Dante eventually gets his hands on Lilith and her child, the latter of which is Mundus' heir. Dante arranges for an exchange between them to save Kat, and both Dante and Mundus' officers conduct the exchange in a professional manner. Vergil, however, had no such compunctions, and shoots Lilith and the baby dead midway through the exchange, turning the relationship sour in record time.
- A prisoner swap opens the Battle of Mt. Ding Jun in Dynasty Warriors 4, based on the same scene from Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Wei's Xiahou Shang is traded for Shu's Chen Shi. The two slowly walk towards each other across an open field while observed by generals from both sides, but the moment one passes the other, both break out into a run for their own lines. That appears to be the cue that the prisoner exchange is over, as arrows start flying from both sides immediately afterwards. This curtly concludes the cease fire and leads directly to the battle itself.
- We're Alive has a case where "both sides try to screw each other" when Saul tries to coax the Mallers into exchanging Lizzy by offering to kidnap and hand over Pegs. But when the exchange goes down the Tower folk are using Riley as a decoy and planning to ambush the Mallers, who are also using a decoy who they promptly shoot to cause confusion and planning an ambush, so they can attack the Tower while its best fighters are at the exchange.
- Subverted in American Dad!, where, back during the Cold War, Stan is being traded for a Soviet agent. As they pass each other, he takes the opportunity to extol the virtues of America, and all the things the Soviet is leaving behind. In response, the Soviet puts his arm around Stan and starts talking about Glorious Mother Russia, while leading him back to the Soviet side where he is promptly grabbed by the Soviets again, as the Americans can only Face Palm as they watch.
- An episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender featured the attempt to make a trade of King Bumi for the Fire Nation governor's infant son. It did not go well.
- An episode of Codename: Kids Next Door had the main group exchange the Toilenator for a fellow operative. Said operative is Numbuh 13, a complete idiot and a Walking Disaster Area who contributes nothing to the episode's mission, but is unintentionally recaptured by the adults at the end of the episode. To their incredible regret.
- At the end of the The Simpsons episode "The Crepes of Wrath", Albanian child spy Adil Hoxha is exchanged for an American child spy.
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars: In "Shadow Warrior", one occurs at the end after the Republic has captured General Grievous and Separatist leader Count Dooku in turn captures Anakin Skywalker.
- This became a regular event during the wars between the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th to 10th centuries. The parties would meet every few years to swap prisoners, often at the Lamos River.
- Done en masse during the days of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, where there were regular truce ships going back and forth carrying prisoners. The two sides kept regular tabs on each other's debit and credit. Sometimes this would break down mid-war, for instance when one side decided that the enemy was running out of manpower and needed to be squeezed harder. Like other such customs, aspects of this hung on as late as World War II, though it was mostly disabled prisoners who were exchanged.
- These happened during the early years of The American Civil War, when neither side wanted to be responsible for looking after large groups of prisoners. Eventually the Union realized that sending captured Confederates back to the South where they were allowed to work, if not fight, and thus prolong the war was not a good idea if you had the larger population.
- Sometimes happened during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union with captured spies, most famously across the Glienicke Bridge. For example in 1962, KGB agent Rudolf Abel was swapped for American pilot Francis Gary Powers (who had been captured after his U-2 spy plane was shot down over the USSR).
- Post-Cold War example: In 2010, there was a spy swap for ten Russian sleeper agents arrested in the USA, in exchange for four people (also Russian citizens) who were being held by Russia on espionage charges.
- There have been many prisoner exchanges throughout the history of the ArabIsraeli Conflict between Israel and their various Arab opponents, involving the release of both live prisoners-of-war and dead bodies. One of the largest events happened in 2011, when Israel and Hamas both agreed to a massive prisoner swap; all in exchange for a single Israeli soldier who was abducted by Hamas, Israel released a whopping 1,027 inmates (mostly Palestinian insurgents who were held in Israeli prisons).