Lessons on writing from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air

For those that don’t know, Save the Cat is a book (and a computer application, an iOS and Android app, a set of workshops, and two other books) by screenwriter Blake Snyder. It’s aimed very firmly at other screenwriters looking for a bit of script-doctor type feedback on structuring their stories. Whilst it’s been criticised by some[citation needed] for its formulaic approach, and I wouldn’t advocate using it religiously to structure your work, I do recommend it (and the sequel, Save the Cat Strikes Back) both for a fun read and for providing a great vocabulary to use when talking about story structure… even if you’re only using it to talk to the nagging voices inside your own head.

What’s this got to do with Will Smith? Well aside from the fact that he literally saves some cats in his movies (the above shot is from 1998’s Enemy of the State, and the Internet[citation needed] pointed out that he saved the Scientist’s cat “from the demo-bot” in I, Robot), the theme tune to his 1990s sit-com, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, declares itself to be a story (“Now this is a story all about how, My life got flipped, turned upside down…”). So, I wondered whether the rousing ballad that Will wrote with Jazzy Jeff followed the “optimum” structure set out in Save the Cat.

In short, would Blake Snyder have thought the theme tune from the Fresh Prince was a “good” story…?

At this point — in the interests of journalistic integrity[citation needed] — I should point out that Enemy of the State and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air both pre-date Blake’s book by quite some time, so… no, there’s no chance Will Smith was influenced by it. This is just a bit of fun. Go with it.

Below is a copy of the lyrics, marked up with my review of it versus the STC beats. I’ve also transcribed (and ever so slightly expanded) the notes below to be a bit less chaotic / a bit more legible:

In conclusion: Yes! The theme from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air follows the fifteen Save the Cat beats pretty much precisely, ticking all but one* of them off over the course of the song in the right order. It also paces those beats pretty much spot on as well (the Mid-Point beat, for example, comes precisely halfway through the song), although the song does take a little longer to cover the first few beats than STC suggests is optimal. Given that this is a 32 line song instead of a 110 page screenplay, I’ll think we can give young Willard and Jeffrey a pass on that one.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether all of this is evidence that the theme from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air is a damn fine ballad that can hold its own with some the finest examples of story-telling of the modern era, or if it’s merely evidence that the Save the Cat beats are a structure with so much leeway in their interpretation that they can be made to fit just about any work that can loosely be described as a story.

* – Somewhat ironically for a theme song, the beat they miss is… Theme (in that there’s no explicit question / statement of principle up front that addresses the root of the Fresh Prince’s dilemma).

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[Note: Quotes from the song are in quotation marks. Terms from STC are in bold]

Clearly a Rites of Passage story.
Life problem: Lazy life / fights in a rough town
Wrong way to fix: fights / reject the opportunity of Bel Air to hang in a cab
Solution: acceptance: D’uh! SIX SEASONS! But yeah, his acceptance that Bel Air was his new “Kingdom

Now, this is a story all about how, My life got flipped, turned upside down, And I’d like to take a minute, Just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air” – This is an unnecessary prologue. We can safely delete / exclude from the analysis.

OPENING IMAGE: Lines 1-2 (“In west Philadelphia born and raised, On the playground was where I spent most of my days”) creates a clear opening image to set the scene, which will later create a stark contrast to our Final Image.

SET UP: Lines 1-4 – (as above plus “Chillin’ ot, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool, And shootin’ some b-ball outside of the school”) Establishes the the situation our hero finds himself in at the start of the first act. It’s classic Stasis = Death: Line 3 – If nothing happens, the Fresh Prince will bum around West Philly playin’ b-ball forever (“Chillin’ out, maxin’, relaxin’ all cool”).

THEME STATED: Ironically for a theme song, it’s the theme beat that is missing. There’s never an explicit question / principle posed.

CATALYST: Something happens to unsettle that previously stable world. Lines 5-8 (“When a couple of guys who were up to no good, Started making trouble in my neighbourhood, I got in one little fight and my mom got scared, She said ‘You’re movin’ with your Auntie and Uncle in Bel Air’”. Includes a classic Double-bump: Lines 7-8 has the first bump of the fight (“I got in one little fight… She said ‘You’re moving”) and Lines 10-11 have the second bump of his mother’s (well meaning) rejection (“But she packed my suitcase and sent me on my way, She gave me a kiss and then she gave me my ticket”)

DEBATE: Literally! Line 10 (“I begged and pleaded with her day after day”)

BREAK INTO TWO: Our hero, the FP, makes the conscious decision to “kick it” and voluntarily enter act two. Line 12 (“I put my Walkman on and said, ‘I might as well kick it’”)

B-STORY: His mom and his walkman represent the FP’s roots, which is essentially his love interest. Lines 11-12 (“She gave me a kiss” and “I put on my walkman” – presumably to listen to some familiar comforting music to remind our hero of West Philly, his true love)

FUN AND GAMES: Lines 13-16 (“First class, yo this is bad, Drinking orange juice out of a champagne glass. Is this what the people of Bel Air living like? Hmmmmmm, this might be alright”) Could there be a clearer description of the Promise of the Premise?

MID-POINT: The Stakes are Raised in Line 17 (“But wait, I hear they’re prissy, bourgeois, all that”) when the Bad Guy (in this case, the Fresh Prince’s own doubt and prejudice) rears its head and enters the protagonist’s life. A and B Stories Cross as the FP’s old life and new life come into conflict.

BAD GUYS CLOSE IN: Lines 18-20 (“Is this the type of place that they just send this cool cat? I don’t think so, I’ll see when I get there, I hope they’re prepared for the prince of Bel Air”) Things start to take downward edge as the FP’s self-doubt haunts him.

ALL IS LOST: Lines 21-22 (“Well, the plane landed and when I came out, There was a dude who looked like a cop standing there with my name out”) the Whiff of Death as the Fresh Prince believes a cop is threatening to snatch the FP’s new life away from him (from an arrest — not withstanding that I presume the FP has mistaken a chauffeur sent by his Uncle Phil for a cop?).

DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL: as the FP contemplates what he has to lose – Line 23 (“I ain’t trying to get arrested yet, I just got here”)

BREAK INTO THREE: Our protagonist proactively “springs” forward into the final act – Line 24 (“I sprang with quickness like lightening, disappeared”)

FINALE: Lines 25-30, broken into five stages. The FP Gathers the Team in Line 25 (“I whistled for a cab and when it came near”); gets into the cab to Execute the Plan in Line 26 (“The license plate said fresh and it had dice in the mirror”); faces a High Tower Surprise in Line 27 (“If anything I could say that this cab was rare”) where our hero might just decide to… stay in the cab? become a cabby? Honestly, this is the weakest point in the plot and could use a bit of a re-write / polish; but then Digs Deep Down in Line 28 (“But I thought ‘Nah, forget it’ – ‘Yo, home to Bel Air’”) to carry forward on his journey; then he Executes the New Plan in Lines 29-30 (“I pulled to the house about 7 or 8, And yelled to the cabbie ‘Yo home smell ya later’”).

FINAL IMAGE: having completed his journey and found his solution through acceptance, we’re left with the clearly contrasting opposite image of the Opening Image – Lines 31-32 (“I looked at my kingdon, I was finally there, To sit on my throne as the Prince of Bel Air”).

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For more posts discussing things I’ve learnt from watching movies check out:
Lessons on writing from Rocky
– Causes and cures for writers block (Lessons on writing from Mission: Impossible III)
– Lessons on writing from Jurassic Park