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300+ Paths to the Sandwich

The times, they be exciting. The March 32nd site is up, we gathered plenty of footage at PAX, and episode one is camera ready. We’ve written, polished, and mapped out every possible route through the first episode. We know it backwards and forwards, sideways and widdershins. But one rather large thing we don’t know about it, however, is its length.

The general rule of screenwriting is that one page of script equals one minute of screen time. But there are multiple routes through our story, and the program we’re using to co-write and map this thing isn’t screenwriting software. The screenwriting programs out there aren’t built to handle the linking and cross-indexing necessary to keep all our playable options in some sense of order. Our program can. The only downside? The program doesn’t have a fixed window size; it adapts to whatever size rectangle you stretch the screen. What we need to get a sense of page length (and thus playthrough time) is the fanatically rigid, unreasonably inflexible page layout of the screenplay.

I volunteered to port a scene into Final Draft and see what came out the other side. I took one of the eight major sequences of the first episode and set about adapting it to the language of the screen. It was not an easy translation.

Here’s the thing: as I’ve said before, there’s only one way through a screenplay: start to finish. It’s not meant to accommodate options. You don’t include alternate endings or optional scenes. You spend your time mulling over the choices and deciding on a firm and unbending single path through the story. There’s no room for side quests or cul-de-sacs.

Except that that’s exactly how March 32nd is built — not just choices and alternate routes here and there, but everywhere, several times per scene. And as I discovered, each individual permutation had to be transcribed into a format that did not want to adjust to it. The scene thus wound up looking like a Choose Your Own Adventure, jumping around to vault over choices to connect with others farther down the line, occasionally circling around to retreaded territory. It was a beautiful, maddening jumble.

What I wound up with was a scene that would have made any assistant director beat me to death with his walkie: a 50-page scene. More specifically, an un-breakdown-able (it’s a word) 50-page scene with a playthrough time of 7.5 to 11.5 minutes. Yes, I did emerge with the approximate runtime. Hooray.

This wasn’t a particularly action- or choice-heavy scene, either. What I can tell you is that it takes place in a restaurant (SPOILER!), and that from the moment Jake walks into the door to the moment his food arrives, there are over 300 ways for the scene to play out — 300-plus ways for Jake to reach his sandwich. (Not that there’s a sandwich.)

Over three hundred ways to play the scene up to that point. And that’s not including additional factors such as optional objects and which (if any or all) are interacted with, the effects of time and date, and everything from the arrival of the food on. That’s enough to kick the permutations over a thousand per scene. And this wasn’t a heavy scene.

I remember laughing when someone at the office mentioned a video game script that topped over 600 pages. I laugh no more, as that’s the equivalent of only twelve sandwich scenes.

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