American Born Chinese Story Structure
American Born Chinese (a wonderful YA graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, published by First Second Books) consists of three stories, all of which are about wanting to fit in and what lengths one will go in order to be part of the group.
The Monkey King is a deity worthy of equal status as all the other gods but doesn’t get any respect because he’s a monkey, Jin is a normal kid but he’s Chinese in a white American culture, and Danny is a cool kid who could fit in if it wasn’t for his Chinese stereotype cousin, Chin-Kee.
The structure for multi-story stories is different in that the beats are combined for maximum impact, but all the beats are still there. If you’re hoping to write a multi-story graphic novel, American Born Chinese is a great example to learn from.
Spoiler Warning! Below is the plot structure of American Born Chinese using Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet as the basis for the breakdown (see my review of Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, an excellent storytelling resource). For an explanation of each “beat” please refer to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet. Thanks!
PREMISE: American Born Chinese is three stories about wanting to fit in and the lengths one will go in order to be part of the group.
Monkey King Part 1:
Opening Image – A party of gods and goddesses.
Set up – We are introduced to the Monkey King, a deity, who wants to go to the party but he’s not allowed in. Why?
Theme Stated – Because he’s a monkey (and he doesn’t have any shoes on). Everyone at the party laughs at him.
Catalyst – Thoroughly embarrassed, the Monkey King wrecks havoc on the party, beating everyone to a pulp, then returns home, intent on changing himself, somehow.
Jin Part 1:
Opening Image – Jin, as a young kid, in the backseat of a his parent’s car, playing with a Transformer toy, crying.
Set up – He and his parents are moving to a new town. He will have to leave his friends and start again.
Theme Stated – An old woman asks Jin what he wants to be when he grows up. Jin holds up his toy and says: a Transformer, though his mom has told him he can’t grow up to be a robot. The old woman says he can do anything, if he’s willing to forfeit his soul.
Catalyst – Jin attends a new school, he is one of two Asians there and he has no friends until Wei-Chen joins a year later (they become friends through their mutual interest in Transformers).
Danny Part 1:
Opening Image – A title card that reads “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” with a stereotypical Chinese face. Clap clap clap’s are spread across the bottom panel border (parodying sitcom audience members).
Set up – Danny and Melanie are studying chemistry. Danny, an attractive white teenager, is about to ask Melanie out on a date when his cousin Chin-Kee arrives for a surprise visit.
Theme Stated – Chin-Kee, with his stereotypical appearance, speech and behavior, is an embodiment of the theme. He embarrasses Danny in front of Melanie.
Catalyst – Danny is told that Chin-Kee will be going to school with him the next day, much to Danny’s dismay and the sitcom audience’s delight.
Monkey King Part 2:
Debate – As the Monkey King trains in kung fu – learning how to alter his appearance – the other monkeys struggle with his decree that they all must wear shoes from now on. How far will this go?
Choosing Act Two – The Monkey King is given a letter telling him he will be executed for trespassing at the party. Nonsense, because he is no longer the Monkey King, he has named himself “The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven” and leaves to inform Heaven of his equality to them.
Fun N’ Games – The “Monkey King” meets with a number of gods and each one needs convincing that he is their equal. After beating the tar out of them, he still hasn’t earned their respect.
B Story – God intervenes. He tells the “Monkey King” to stop all this nonsense and be what he was meant to be: a monkey.
Midpoint – He refuses and God traps him under a pile of rock, where he stays for over 500 years.
Jin Part 2:
Debate – Jin likes a girl in his class, Amelia.
Choosing Act Two – But when he has the chance to be near her, he chickens out.
Fun N’ Games – After seeing Amelia talk with Greg – a cool white guy with curly hair – Jin perms his hair to imitate Greg’s appearance.
B Story – Wei-Chen tells Amelia what a good friend Jin has been to him: “He has a good soul”.
Midpoint – With his new found confidence in his hair and with Wei-Chen’s help, Jin asks Amelia out on a date. She says YES.
Danny Part 2:
Debate – Danny and Chin-Kee arrive at school, late, so no one can see them.
Choosing Act Two – Danny tries to keep Chin-Kee under control, but to no avail. Everyone notices him.
B Story – A teacher tells Danny’s class that it would behoove them all to be a little more like Chin-Kee.
Fun N’ Games – A montage of Chin-Kee in Danny’s classes acting like the awful stereotype that he is. He is a total embarrassment to Danny, Chin-Kee is ruining his reputation. Even Melanie turns him down.
Midpoint – Danny tells Steve, a friend of his from the basketball team, that this happens every year: Chin-Kee visits, ruins his reputation and he has to find another school to fit in. He’s trapped.
Monkey King Part 3:
Bad Guys Close In – A monk is chosen by God for a quest. He must gather disciplines, one of which is the Monkey King. The monk finds the Monkey King still under a pile of rock, and after debating with the him about being able to free himself if only he turned back into a monkey, he tells him “with me dies your last chance at freedom.”
All is Lost – At that moment, the monk is attacked by demons. He is injured and put on a spit, they intend to eat him.
Dark Night of the Soul – Not wanting to see the monk die, the Monkey King relents and returns to his true form.
Choosing Act Three – He attacks the demons and frees the monk. Together, they continue on God’s quest (without shoes).
Jin Part 3:
Bad Guys Close In – With Wei-Chen’s help, Jin goes on a date with Amelia. It goes well. He’s happy. That is, until Greg asks Jin to stop dating Amelia. He’s trying to look out for her reputation – Jin would ruin it. Intimidated, Jin agrees. Later, Jin kicks himself for agreeing and works up the courage to talk to Amelia again, but Greg is there and all his confidence shatters.
All is Lost – Feeling down, Jin kisses Wei-Chen’s girlfriend. Wei-Chen confronts Jin and Jin takes his Greg-aggression out on Wei-Chen, calling Wei-Chen a worthless F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat) and ending their friendship.
Dark Night of the Soul – That night, Jin convinces himself he was right to do what he did and dreams of the old woman from before. By forfeiting his soul, he transforms into Danny. Jin is Danny.
Danny Part 3:
Bad Guys Close In – Danny enters the school library, where Chin-Kee is making an embarrassing scene, singing “She Bangs”. Danny yells at Chin-Kee, telling him to go away. Chin-Kee won’t.
All is Lost – Danny, in desperation and hate, punches him once, twice, three times. Chin-Kee fights back with stereotype-laden kung fu, telling Danny he will visit him every year, forever. Danny punches him once more, knocking his head off, literally!
Dark Night of the Soul – It was a mask. The Monkey King was Chin-Kee all along. He transforms Danny back into Jin. They talk about Wei-Chen: he is the Monkey King’s son and turned his back on being an emissary to mankind when Jin broke his heart.
Choosing Act Three – What to do? The Monkey King tells Jin he wouldn’t have spent 500 years under a pile of rocks if only he had noticed how great it is to be a monkey. He gives Jin the business card of a Chinese diner and leaves.
Finale – Jin visits the diner until Wei-Chen arrives. He tells Wei-Chen he’s sorry. They make amends.
Final Image – Jin and Wei-Chen talking and laughing at the Chinese diner. Friends again and happy to be themselves.