Friday, October 06, 2006

Mahler’s Script-Beat Calculator

Our good friend, Ross Mahler, who is an extraordinary computer expert (and author of the blog Shares Dream World), has built a soon-to-be-famous screenwriting tool:

Here’s how it works. You type the number of pages in your script and Mahler’s Calculator will give you a guide (within a typical 3-act structure) of the page numbers by which the various “beats” in your story should be taking place.

So if, say, you have a 110-page script, this is the breakdown you would get.

Opening Image: pg 1
Establish Theme: pgs 1 – 5
Setup: pgs 1 – 10
Inciting Incident: 12
Debate - Half Commitment: pgs 12 – 25
Turn to Act II: 25
Subplot intro by: pg 30
Fun - Games - Puzzles: pgs 30 – 55
Tentpole - Midpoint - Reversal: pg 55
Enemy Closes In: pgs 55 – 75
Low Point: pg 75
Darkest Decision: pgs 75 – 85
Turn to Act III: pg 85
Finale - Confrontation: pgs 85 – 107
Aftermath: pgs 107 – 110
Final Image: pg 110

Hehehe… How cool is that?

Ross modeled his calculator after
Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet.

I asked him “How did you arrive at the page number for the Inciting Incident?”

“I've always thought of this page as the page that it should happen by (as in no later than). It could, of course, occur earlier, if little character set up is required. But if you look at most movies, the opening minutes is showing the character in their status quo, then comes the inciting incident that upsets it. A few examples from some of your subtext films...

Raiders -- gov't officials want him to go after the ark
Groundhog Day - Phil has to go to Punksatawnee (sp?)
History of Violence -- the bad guys show up at the diner”

“What did you mean by ‘Fun - Games - Puzzles?’”

“Fun and Games is an awkward term, but I've always taken it to mean the part after the inciting incident, perhaps when a character is half-committed to the quest, but before things get really serious and the stakes are raised. For example:

Raiders -- trying to gather the clues (but before Marion supposedly dies)
Groundhog Day -- Dealing with the comical/ludicrous aspects of a never-ending day, before things look hopeless and he wants to kill himself.
History of Violence -- when Tom tries to deal with the attention and not get in too much trouble (but before he has to kill anyone or deal with the reality of his past with his wife)

“What did you mean by ‘Tentpole - Midpoint - Reversal?’”

“To me, this is that point where the goal shifts (or shifts in meaning). For example:

Raiders -- the goal doesn't shift, but when Marion dies(?), beating the Nazi's becomes personal
Groundhog Day -- when love and meaningfulness become the goal (instead of just getting to Feb. 3)
History of Violence -- when Tom realizes he'll have to confront his past to make it go away (can't just make it go away)”

What are your thoughts? Suggestions?


scribosphere said...

Good One.

Added in the Scribosphere.

Miriam said...

Blake says that the midpoint beats with "All is Lost." In both places there should be "whiff of death." If somebody doesn't actually die, then it feels like they do.

Example: the midpoint in my current story is when the little sister gets kidnapped and we fear she will be the next sacrificial victim.

In the world according to Blake, one of these beats is a false victory and the other is a false defeat. Usually the midpoint is the false defeat (turns out to be a victory in disguise), but it could be a false victory.

The reason the false victory usually occurs at the All is Lost beat is that the protag feels his quest is finally ending, but in reality he's just run up against a brick wall and now has to find his way around it.

GimmeABreak and I are trying to figure out to correctly use the beat-sheet. If you don't use it right, the story turns formulaic. I've also been trying to apply Hauge and Vogler's rules on the Hero's Journey in addition to the beats. It helps to throw some shadow into the corners.

GameArs said...

I never used the beat sheet until about three scripts ago. I wrote a horror script and put each beat on precisely the page suggested.

I did this just to impress the beat sheet into my brain. Just to see what would result.

I thought it worked out pretty well in the end but now, I write with the beat sheet simply floating in the back of my mind. It's there, in the attic, with all the other structure stuff that is heaped in the same pile.

It'll be fun to use this upcoming tool to see just how closely the beats in my later scripts hover around the "calculated" pages.

GimmeABreak said...

Just compared my latest rewrite to the calculations. Am within a page or two of the "proper" place for all the major beats. I didn't use Blake's sheet this time because the previous effort (using the sheet) ended feeling formulaic, as Mim noted. However, the previous use planted something in my brain that helped guide the writing this time without having to actually plot out everything, page by page.

I'm tentatively satisfied with the result. We'll see if the readers are.

Matthew Spira said...

As long as we don't lose sight of the "big picture" I think these kinds of tools are great.

I fear a problem is people might try to substitute these kinds of tools FOR the "big picture." (But, but, but... I hit every beat correctly, why does my screenplay still suck?!)

This is a great exercise tool for analyzing structure. And since structure is all about filling the space of the time of a movie, it's all good.


christina said...

Thanks for a link to an online calcululater. I have the same thing in a rougher form in an Excel file.

I applied Blake's method when writing my last screenplay and am using it again for my current screenplay. After writing 6 specs, it became apparent that my strong point was dialogue and individual scenes, but I was weak on structure and overall story oomph. So I decided to write my 7th and 8th screenplays blatantly applying someone's idea of structure, and I picked Blake's.

The "fun and games" section of a screenplay is my favorite to write. Blake says it's the section of the screenplay that proves the promise of the premise, or something like that.

In Tootsie, for example, it's when he's dressed up as a woman and taken seriously as an actor.

In 40-year-old Virigin, it's when he starts meeting girls and trying to date.

Blake notes that many of the trailer moments will come out of this part of the movie.

Shares Dream World said...

I always shy away from following anything that I'd call a formula, HOWEVER, I think this can act as an excellent guide, often to either help in the planning phase of your script, just to get your ideas organized, OR when you're trying to figure out where your script is in trouble. For instance, if you find that your inciting incident is on page 20, when it is recommended that it occur on page 10, you might come to the conclusion that your opening is too long and needs to be shortened somehow. The story should be king, however. Don't follow anything blindly except your gut instincts.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

I'm sorry, but this is like a clinical approach to sex. Takes the fun out of it.

Miriam said...


Shares Dream World said...


This is just intended as a tool. I NEVER write a script blindly landing on those suggested pages exactly, and I think it would be foolish to do so. I once got a review on Trigerstreet in which a reviewer told me that she had given me poor marks because the beat that should have occurred on page 75 didn't come till page 80. I thought it was the most ludicrous criticism a person could give. These are just things to aim for to achieve a certain pacing that many successful scripts seems to follow. There are many excellent exceptions, and many bad movies that follow these beats exactly.

However, a tool like this is excellent when something in your script is out of whack, or you feel like there's something you've forgotten. It's meant to INSPIRE creativity, not to stifle it. I often don't even consider this type of analysis till I'm done with my script (or sometimes when I'm lost in the middle and need a little nudge). But make no mistake: there is no substitute for gut instinct and creativity. There is no magic equation for the muse, and if you follow a formula blindly, your script will read exactly that way -- formulaic.

Use this tool if you like, ignore it if you please.

Miriam said...

MaryAn, you've got a lot more experience under your belt than we have. Blake makes the point that most professional Hollywood writers probably don't follow a template of any kind, but they have enough experience that they kind of keep one in their head without realizing it.

I think MM himself has said somewhere in here that writing one screenplay doesn't make us screenwriters, and that our skills will improve with every new one we do write.

Please share your thoughts. Does it seem to you that it has gotten easier to trek your way through a story as your body of work grows larger?

GameArs said...

I personally equate tings like beat sheets and structure templates like the rudiments of drumming.

I was a drummer for many, many years. The first thing you learn are the thirteen basic rudiments. These are technical application, much like learning scales on the piano.

Without these things, you have no foundation to build on. No launching pad. I think it's important to understand these fundamentals, becuase while they are "technical" aspects of the craft, they are, in reality, the things that ultimately let you jump feet-first into the pool of creativity.

With strong knowledge and a clear grasp of the fundamentals in any craft or art, you are ready to play the ultimate, soul-exploding solo. In other words, they aren't chains to hold you down, they are the key that sets you free.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

The more screenplays you read and write, the more comfortable and natural your timing and structure will feel.

My grandmother always knew exactly how much flour, salt and water to use in her tortillas without ever measuring a thing. Whether she was making one dozen tortillas or six, she knew by looking at the bowl how much flour she needed. That came from practice and a genuine love of making tortillas, not a recipe.

Matthew Spira said...

With respect, I think this thread is revealing a little bit of the conceit that Mystery Man is pointing out: the fallacy of believing the more we think we know, the less we think we have to keep working on the technical details of every aspect of our craft.

Recipes serve a purpose. They document the collective wisdom and shared dialogue of everyone who cooks. Take a look at the front page popular recipes search for on Would you know how to deal ALL of those things without taking a look at what someone else has done? Is there any less passion for what they do, simply because they follow recipes to try new things, or to make sure a minimal standard of quality is met?

Ross's tool serves a purpose, but it's just a tool. If a tool doesn't meet your needs, don't use it. But that doesn't invalidate the tool.

Personally, I keep in mind that airline pilots, with 30+ years of experience, still go through detailed checklists before and during each and every flight they do.


Mickey Lee said...

Yikes -- my script hits those marks almost exactly to the page! Guess I'm a mindless automaton!

Seriously, I find beat sheets to be a valuable tool -- if anything, they force you to discipline your writing and avoid bouts of logorrhea.

Like many guidelines, these beat sheets have been time proven due to the way the human mind reacts to storytelling. People start shifting in their seats if they aren't stimulated properly and in the right way.

The recipe analogy is apt. Sure, you follow the recipe to nail down the basic outcome, but you throw in some special ingredients to make it your own. I've made pancakes so many times, I don't even need to look at the box anymore -- I don't think that makes me a master chef, however.

Mystery Man said...

Those were all great comments.

You know, I think that we should be SO good at understanding the screenplay as a form that when the stupid exec in a suit approaches any one of us with, "Hey, we're thinking about doing a movie on X," you can automatically say, "Okay, great. Something like that should only be 110 pages, which means that the first 30 pages should introduce X, X, and X; Act II should cover X and X with XX being the Act II climax, which should be around page 90; and Act III is all about X."

Then the stupid exec in a suit picks his jaw up off the floor and says, "How would you like to write it for low-six?"

And you say, "Uhh, try mid-six."

And he says, "Okay. Mid-six it is."


MaryAn Batchellor said...

matthew spira, This "tool" is questionable, in my ignorant opinion, because it has the dangerous potential to convince amateur writers to wreck very good stories that do not come close to following this guideline.

Contrary to your opinion, which you are entitled to, I do NOT think that I know more than I actually do. However, if by being the epitome of conceit, I have helped MM make a point, then my conceit has had some value here.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

mickey lee, all analogies break down at some point but mine was not meant to imply that no recipes are valuable or that master chefs don't use them. What I'm talking about here is using ONE recipe over and over-- the one in the post.

Mystery Man said...

Ya know, I’d like to dive into this discussion, MaryAn.

This is really my fault. It is a little awkward that I’m putting Mahler’s device on my blog, of all places, because so many of my regular readers (who post comments) are advanced students whose instincts are sharp enough that they may not need guides anymore.

But there are quite a few newbies (and 1 GENIUS! Hehehe…) who read the blog regularly (and have sent me emails telling me so but they don’t post comments because it’s all still so new to them). For those newbies, I think this is a great guide, because I believe that anyone who’s just starting out should master the 3 Act structure FIRST. Fellini, Godard, Altman, Bergman, all those guys, all spent years mastering the 3 act BEFORE moving on to more complicated avant garde, non-plot, multi-plot, multi-protag stories. Hey, if it’s good enough for Fellini, it’s good enough for the kids on TriggerStreet.

So much of our thinking is about helping other newbies on TS who really are great people and are so very anxious to learn.


Matthew Spira said...


Read my blog, read my screenplays, decide for yourself, look at the people I deal with on a regular basis... but that's not really the point.

Miriam gave you a softball. None of the people responding on this thread are neophytes.

I've read scripts from just about all the people who responded to you. Nobody responding to you is a cook trying to make do from a single recipe.

Read our scripts. Otherwise, it's just proof of the conceit I was talking about.

Mystery Man, I hate to say this, because I love you for so many reasons, and in so many respects, but the THE TOY MAKER isn't the be all and end of screenwriting. Nor, the other screenplay you know I've read.

You guys are wonderful, MM and Maryan, you really are, and I'm just being my usual aggressive self, so discount what I'm saying if otherwise it means we can't talk in a civilized manner next week, but seriously, you need to step back and look at what you're saying to those of us on the other side of the professional divide.

What you're saying comes across in this thread as very sophisticated "backhanded compliments."


Mystery Man said...


Let me tell you something. Are you listening to me? Because this is important. I love you for just as many reasons. I certainly wasn’t disagreeing with anything you wrote, and I don't know how you got a backhanded compliment out of that, because I wrote what I actually think. Maybe I didn't come across the way I intended. I don't know. There's a lot of different sides to a topic, and I was just bringing up another side that hadn't been discussed. (In my mind, at least.)

But I hope you know that I would never, ever say (or think) that any story I write is the end all be all of anything. I’m sure you feel the same way about your own stories. I’m just a prolific writer. I write volumes. Some things work, others don’t. Some things sell, others don’t. Sometimes you get assignment work, sometimes you don’t. That’s the way it goes. Even if (later in life) people might call me a "master," I’ll never believe them nor admit to it, because you’re never more than one script away from total disaster. But a guy will fail at this even when he knows what he's doing. It's tough.

Ya know, I had a point, but I don't remember what it was. Hehehe... No worries, man, even if people disagree.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

I didn't intend to get into a debate about it. I made a simple comment about this tool being too clincial of an approach. Me no likie. That's it. Doesn't mean you have to reject it or can't like it and it doesn't mean it won't help anyone at all. But I, ME, this person you are reading right now, I think it's a bad idea and gave my poorly thought out and much embattled analogy to explain why.

I didn't advocate writing blind, diss beat sheets, or oppose outlines. I simply don't like this tool and you can't make me. Nyah!

Why? Because it takes the primary focus off story and puts it on pages. It takes the focus off writing quality and puts it on pages. It takes the focus off almost everything EXCEPT pages.

My comments are not meant to imply that anyone here is a neophyte and yeah, I am conceited but that's hardly the point.

I think this is a bad tool. Period. Deal with it. If it works for some of you, great. But, I think the newer the screenwriter, the worse this tool is. I think it's bad and I'm entitled to think so. I didn't plan on ranting about it, but backed into a corner, I have a nasty habit hissing.

I don't know what I'm supposed to "decide for myself" by reading everyone's screenplays and why failure to read them makes me conceited but I can assure you that I would STILL think this tool, THIS tool, not beat sheets or outlines, but THIS tool is a bad idea.

Matthew Spira said...

Me saying anything more on the main theme of what I've posted in this thread would simply be argumentative, so let me sum what I want to be my metapoint:

I have an enormous amount of respect for you guys... and let the screenwriting revolution of sharing information continue!


Dave said...

Nobody has mentioned that Blake's approach is specifically about writing a "hollywood" script. The beat sheet is a tool he has found useful when writing that type story structure.

It's not meant for every story.

Somebody had made the comment earlier that if you put in your page count and find that, say, your inciting incident is on page 20 when it should be on 10, odds are you're being a little novelish and should do a little pruning.

Not all tools work for all people, but this is a convenient package for those that subscribe to the beat sheet and hollywood story.

Shares Dream World said...

Wow, who knew this would be such a controversial post. Let's get back to character depth and chalk this one up to a difference of opinion.

Carlo Conda said...

I agree with the beats, but not necessarily the nailed down page numbers. Stories have followed similar story structures for hundreds and hundreds of years, and I think the story structure - not the page calculations - are what is most important to newbies. I'll agree with MaryAn on this one.

Beat sheets are awesome, of course, but this sort of tool seems to simply be something you may use to impress an executive who is hell bent on your page numbers. This may be often, but I don't think it helps newbies (and, as already covered here, the pros already know structure anyways).

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Ganious said...

What is forgotten is the fact that each page in the script may cost from $10,000 up to $1 million to shoot. So the beat sheet is not only a guide, but also a guard rail to keep the writer on track. A good writer can take a mediocre or great story and set it in any format, be it haiku, a song or a screenplay. Not to say they are all interchangeable and simple, but that the art is in fitting the image in the frame and allowing the audience freedom to envision the rest.

Erlkonig said...

As a professor of screenwriting (not that I expect my word to be taken - this is the internet, after all!), I have to agree with MaryAnn that this, or any sort of formula for what 'needs' to happen in a story, let alone when it needs to happen, is a bad tool. Of course, as "Dave" points out, it was designed for producing scripts for Hollywood-style movies ... so no wonder it's bad!

My advice to my students is that they should seek to gain an understanding of how cinema as a medium works at its most fundamental level (i.e. how an audience's perception of events enacted through recorded images and sounds can be meaningful), while familiarizing themselves with great works of storytelling in all mediums (literature, theatre, oral, etc.), as well as with non-narrative works of art (dance and jazz/classical music being the most useful, in the sense of their being time-based, with structures that are more emotional than logical and which can't be reduced to simplistic formulas, but must each be taken on their own terms as giving a unique, 'in the moment' experience).

Of course, if your frame of reference is limited to films that follow the Field/Snyder/McKee formula ("Tootsie" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin" as models?!), then reproducing it yourself in your own writing will make it seem as though you've accomplished something. And I suppose you will have -- you'll have accomplished the creation of a derivative, formulaic 'product', not a work of creativity that expresses your personal worldview, which should be the goal of anyone seeking to make art ... I mean, realistically, everyone who reads this site could write the most 'perfect' formula script, high concept, blah blah blah, and the odds of even one of them being bought, without any of us having any prior industry connections, are practically nil. Trying to follow a set of rules with the idea that doing so will enable you to sell your script is, not only the opposite of a truly creative endevaour, but, as the protagonist of "The Iceman Cometh" would put it, a pipe dream...

Anonymous said...

I work in development at a company and roll my eyes whenever I see these types of arguments played out over and over between people defending the use of "formula" versus those who think its beneath them to consider using it.

The main thing is, it's just a model! It's just a tool! To use or not use it depends on the writer. Whichever method you use to get to the promised land doesn't matter, as long as what you do gets your there. If it works, then great - if it doesn't, well find another method. Different strokes for different strokes.

That being said, there are certainly a lot of "Hollywood" writers and people in development who frequently cite Snyder's beats.

Thirdly, to the last poster - what constitutes a "Hollywood-style" movie? Sure, there's a lots of crap out there, I'll tell ya that, but there's also some Hollywood films that are quality stuff. Is Martin Scorsese Hollywood or art? Spielberg? Cameron? Some of their films fit the Snyder beats - does that make them hacks? The snootiness of some people really get to me, sorry.

Ultimately, what Hollywood is after is good stories. If you want art, go buy a damn painting.

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