Where Do Flashbacks and Backstory Belong in the Save the Cat! Beat Sheet?

Flashbacks and backstory can be extremely useful storytelling devices that give your reader important information about the history of the world, a character’s past, and why certain characters behave a certain way. When used sparingly and strategically, backstory can provide context and clarity and even create empathy for unlikeable characters.

But where do you do this when using the Save the Cat! method for writing novels?

Are there specific beats where these elements go? Yes and no. The short answer is there is no hard and fast rule as to where in the beat sheet you can place a flashback or deliver backstory to the reader. There’s no one beat that is the ultimate “flashback” beat. But there are places in the beat sheet where these literary devices work better.

Most likely, you’re going to deliver backstory (through flashbacks or other means) in the “multi-scene” beats. So, we’re talking the Setup, Debate, Fun and Games, Bad Guys Close In, Dark Night of the Soul, and Finale. (For more on these beats, check out my blog post here). The single-scene beats (especially those foundation beats which pivot the plot) are best kept in the present moment. (For more on the foundation beats, check out this blog post.)

For example, a Catalyst which sets the story into motion is probably going to happen in the present, not in the past. Unless, there’s a very compelling reason. Likewise, the Midpoint, which raises the stakes of the story and pivots the direction of the plot, is probably going to happen in the present as well. Same goes for the All is Lost and those beats where the hero is making a decision and taking action (Break into 2 and Break into 3). These beats work best in the present, as they’re dictating where the story goes next.

The Setup, on the other hand, is where you are literally setting up your hero and their world, so perhaps a little sprinkling of backstory here—maybe a flashback or two—will help accomplish that. And notice I said “sprinkling.” Backstory is the most compelling to read about when it’s sprinkled in here and there, as opposed to dumped in all at once (especially at the start of the story.) Give the reader just enough for them to understand what’s happening in the present, but always leave them wanting more backstory…not less of it.

Similarly, the Debate beat is designed for contemplation and internal reflection, making it a fitting place to perhaps dive into the past for a moment, to show how that past might influence the big decision coming up in the Break into 2.

In general, the multi-scene beats are good places to weave in backstory because you have time. You have pages. The Fun and Games beat is long. It might be nice to give the reader some short breaks from from the primary storyline by diving into the hero’s past and revealing some important backstory.

The operative word with backstory and flashbacks, however, is always necessity. Nothing slows a plot more than unnecessary backstory. Backstory should be used to explain a character’s behavior, raise the stakes of the plot, help reveal the theme, inform the events of the present, or connect to the present storyline in another meaningful way. The rule is, if the story doesn’t make sense without it, then it’s necessary. If you can lift it out and the story still works, then you probably don’t need it.

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Discover the secret storytelling code behind every bestselling novel.

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