Strong Bad: Uh, King, you "wrote" a piece of lasagna on this piece of paper.
The King of Town: And I ain't budging!
When negotiating important business, characters write their payment offer on a piece of paper and give it to the other party in a way such that the offer is concealed. Sometimes the offer has been written down in advance, sometimes it is written on the spot. When written down on the spot, it's frequently accompanied by the Stock Phrase, "I'm going to write a number on this piece of paper."
Any feeling you might have at that point that the actor is now reading the script's stage direction aloud comes from an uncharitable place in your heart. Albeit accurate.
A table to have the negotiation across is almost mandatory. Large tables are fine, in which case a minor functionary will have the duty of carrying the offer from one party to the other. This is done very seriously, and everyone involved is silent as the offer trades hands.
A key element is that the offer only contains a single number or more rarely an object, a person, or an action.
Why would a writer do this? Two reasons:
First, to build suspense. The character receiving the offer has to wait a moment to know what it is, and the character making the offer has to wait a moment to see their reaction. The audience, meanwhile, is likewise left in the dark while the offer gets written down and passed to the recipient. Also, the cumbersome nature of this communication strategy strongly implies that this is the best possible offer; if the offer is rejected, then it's very likely there won't be any deal at all. (Unless the story is a comedy, it's very rare to see a silent offer get rejected and then followed up with additional silent offers.)
Second, this is a method of invoking the Undisclosed Funds trope. Silent offers are easily concealed from the audience, but verbal offers are trickier. (In the latter case you usually have to cut away to another scene entirely, and the writer might not want to do that.)
Occasionally the offer is insulting, being zero or blank. When played for humor, the offer is frequently zero or nonsensical.
- Zigzagged in The Firm. The movie opens with Mitch McDeere being headhunted by various law firms who are naming high prices. The firm of Bendini, Lambert & Locke place a sealed envelope in front of McDeere and as a test of his ability, tell him to work out the amount inside. The answer is: they bribed a clerk to tell them the highest offer being put in for McDeere, then added 20%.
- In True Romance, the protagonist makes an offer in an envelope for his "peace of mind." The envelope is empty.
- In the film version of the Egyptian novel The Yacoubian Building, the corrupt car importer goes to bribe a Party official to get "elected" to parliament. The official draws a rabbit—which Egyptians know means a million pounds (the Egyptian pound was about 5-6 to the dollar at the time, so it's not exactly Monopoly money). When the importer's eyes widen, the official simply says, "just be happy it wasn't an elephant" (an elephant meaning anywhere from ten million to a billion pounds depending on context).
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In "Past Prologue", Garak negotiates the price for a wanted terrorist with two Klingons, using an electronic tablet instead of paper.
- In "The Nigerian Job," a bribe is handled by handing a number to someone. The trope is used to mislead both the person being conned and the audience; the envelope does not originally hold a number, but a check, and is switched out as it is handed over.
- In "The Juror #6 Job", Sophie writes $100,000,000 in Quint's Zen sand garden.
- In How I Met Your Mother, when Marshall is being interviewed for a law position over dinner; his starting salary is written down and pushed across the table to him.
- In an episode of Gilmore Girls, Lorelei is receiving a loan from Luke and insists on writing numbers for a payment plan on a scrap of paper and passing it across the counter to Luke despite the fact that this seems to agitate him. When they finally come to an agreement, Lorelei writes one last thing which is apparently "Thank you," because Luke answers "You're welcome."
- A favored tactic of Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, even when negotating with himself.
- On The Daily Show (December 5th, 2013), John Hodgman threatens that New York City's billionaires will leave for other cities where they're allowed to ignore the laws and hunt the homeless unless New York can grant his proposed counteroffer, which he writes on a piece of paper and passes to Jon Stewart.
Stewart: This also says "Hunt the homeless."Hodgman: I cannot emphasis how much we want to hunt the homeless, Jon.
- On New Girl, Jess tries to use this tactic when buying a TV from a pawn shop. The pawn shop owner points out that she just drew a smiley face on the piece of paper, and is unimpressed.
- In Limitless, in the episode "Undercover!", Sands makes a job offer; he says "I'm gonna write a number on a piece of paper," and does so.
- Rhodes. A witness who was paid to commit sabotage of a rival mining operation is reluctant to name his employer in a court of inquiry, so writes it down instead. The judge reads it and then demands to know if there's a Cecil Rhodes present, making it obvious what the message said.
- Angel. Sahjahn wants Lilah Morgan to help him kill Angel, despite her working for Wolfram & Hart who want Angel alive for their own schemes. As insurance in case her office is bugged, Lilah Morgan writes her answer to Sahjahn on her legal pad: COUNT ME IN.
- Luke Cage (2016). In "Just To Get A Rep", Shades tells Cottonmouth about the so-called Judas bullet which can kill the Nigh-Invulnerable Luke Cage. The problem is they're made from alien material salvaged from the Chitauri Invasion, so are naturally difficult to get hold of. Shades writes the price down on a coaster and hands it to Cottonmouth.
Cottonmouth: ...per bullet?!
Cottonmouth: For real?!
- The Heavy Water War. When the French government finds out the German government has put in a huge order for heavy water to the Norwegians for weapons research, they send a representative to buy up whatever stocks they have on hand to delay them. He wants to know what the Germans are bidding, so the head of the company just hands him an envelope with the German bid. The Norwegian then agrees to the sale, saying the French can pay them, "When you've won the war."
- Played for laughs in the CollegeHumor video "Every Negotiation Scene Ever," which showcases the complications that can arise from these types of offers. These include running out of paper to write the offer on, the pens running out of ink, the offer being illegible, and the offer being misinterpreted (i.e. the receiver holding it upside down, turning the 6's on the offer into 9's, and vice versa).
- Homestar Runner: In the Strong Bad Email "business trip" the King of Town and Strong Bad negotiate in this way. What is being negotiated over is never revealed, and the King of Town's offer is "a piece of lasagna." If you're wondering what this means, a piece of lasagna falls out of Hammerspace as soon as Strong Bad picks it up.
- Played for humor in the "E3 2011: Part II" episode of Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'? set at E3, which has Ash making an offer to someone. When he unfolds the paper, there is a childish drawing instead of the expected offer.
- The Simpsons:
Burns: I'm going to write a figure on this piece of paper. It's not quite as large as the last one, but I think you'll find it fair.
- In "Bart Gets Hit By a Car", Homer sues Burns for hitting Bart while in a car. After Burns destroys Homer's credibility in the eyes of the jury, he offers to settle with Homer.
[Burns draws a giant zero]
Hutz: I think we should take it.
- Burns' early attempt to settle for half the money Homer initially asked was also in writing.
- In a later episode, Homer was snoring so much the noise prevented Marge from sleeping near him. Dr. Hibbert wrote in a piece of paper how much he'd charge if Homer agreed to the operation. Homer wrote a counter-proposition "Do it for free". Dr. Hibbert didn't agree.
- Also, when Mr. Burns sold the Nuclear Power Plant to German investors and later decided to buy it back, he wrote in a piece of paper how much he intended to offer. They accepted it.
- American Dad!: In "My Affair Lady", Hayley's salary offer for her new job is made this way and she twirls joyfully around the room in slow motion looking at the piece of paper which is then revealed to say "minimum wage".