ajs_bioby AJ Smith

I have a new idea. Well, it’s a start, anyway, and that’s something important; Something special. Something INSPIRED!

Some writers are intimidated by the notion of idea generation. What is the inspiration for your ideas? Where do ideas come from? How can I create stories and characters that aren’t already told and tired? (How can I write a guest blog for PiBoIdMo that’s not already told and tired?)

Idea generation is my favorite step of the writing process—everything is fresh out of the egg with limitless potential. And it’s one of my favorite topics to delve into with my Children’s Book Illustration students at the college level and also with high school art students (yes, even artists have ideas… twisted, caffeine-induced ideas). Actually, for illustrators, there’s often the related fear of the “blank canvas.” I enjoy talking and teaching about ideas and where they come from because there are so many ways to approach it, and there’s not really a wrong way… but just maybe, I can provide a few new ways to help shore up the chin straps of your thinking caps.

1. I’ll start with (but won’t spend too much time on) the tried and true traditional brainstorming methods: free form lists, mind maps, and word webs. They all have their place and I admit to using them all the time.
But you also probably know and use similar methods—if you don’t, google told me you should start here: https://www.google.com/search?q=brainstorming+ideas+word+webs+lists&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8 and now, there are also apps to help you brainstorm like Mindscope and Random Word Generator. My kids and I even use Rory’s Story Cubes around the dinner table. All of the above are great places to start but let’s try some techniques specific to storytelling aimed at children…

2. First lines! Let’s reference some of the classic first lines that hook editor and reader… That means the prerequisite:

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.

And of course,

Where’s Papa going with that ax?

First lines are great hooks to pull in editors, agents, and young readers. The best first lines simultaneously evoke emotion and interest while causing the reader to ask questions. And they often do so with great immediacy. As such, they make for the perfect idea springboard. Here are a couple off the top of my medulla:

With the amount of gum I put in Henry Beauregard’s hair, I really believed I’d finally get him to ask me on a date.


Mrs. Nussbaum scraped the few remaining crumbs of her lunch off her tray into the grate under her desk and hissed, “You hush down there.”

or maybe

The whole car rumbled from the impact.

3. This last one leads me to what I like to call the ping-pong method. Sometimes one idea will spur another and then I lob it back to the original idea and around and around we go. Many times, for me, this means something I write will inspire a new drawing and that drawing will in turn alter the original idea or spawn a completely new one. Here’s an example of doing that with the line above:


And that ping-pong method of writing-to-drawing-to-writing is one I recommend for non-illustrators (maybe especially for them) as well.

4. Give them what they (need and) want and then take it all away! Every character has a goal and every good story has something standing in the way of that goal. But underneath all that, kids have very basic emotional needs:

  • a. The need to feel empowered or be in control,
  • b. the need to succeed/win or master a skill,
  • c. the need to nurture and help,
  • d. the need to love and be loved and/or receive attention/acclaim.

Obviously you must supply the specific goal on top of these desires, but these fundamental emotional needs can help supply the ideas for more specific wants (to tour the world earning kazillions in a kazoo band, to win the heart of Henry Beauregard, to graduate from Spider Spy Academy with top honors, etc). Now what would stand in the way of those needs and wants?

5. Don’t just make obstacles. Make seemingly insurmountable ones. And building obstacles around fears is a great idea generator! And just what are kids afraid of? The most common (by age – and that’s an important distinction) are: Ages 1-5: divorce, loss of parent, monsters, separation, and unfamiliar experiences (animals, environments, noises, strangers, etc). Ages 6-9: loss of parent, burglars, criticism, the dark, divorce, injury, monsters, new situations, personal danger, and war (think of how culture, time period, and geographic location can impact that last one). Tweens: loss of loved one, loneliness, kidnapping, divorce, personal danger, war. YA: loss of loved one, divorce, romance/relationships, drugs, kidnapping, large crowds, gossip, personal danger, terrorism/war. Getting specific with these fears is a lot of fun. It’s even more fun figuring out how they conquer those fears and achieve their goal…

6. How do they fulfill their wishes?

  • a. Achievement by the main character: (this is the method we’re told is preferred by editors). The protagonist has to go out and make it happen by their own doing!
  • b. Magic/Supernatural: (Harry Potter, anyone?) – this ties back into the need to be empowered and the need to master a skill.
  • c. Science/Technology: Think Iron Man for using technology to their advantage… or The Incredible Hulk, for having been effected by it.
  • d. Plain old Dumb Luck: This can provide for lots of laughs, but can make it harder to root for a character who seemingly achieves their goals through random series or happenstance.

7. Along the road to achieving their goal, your character NEEDS to have transformed. This is the basis of “character arc” and it’s another quick means to fruitful idea generation. Some of the classic arcs/transformations are:

  • a. angry to happy
  • b. boring to exciting
  • c. creature to human
  • d. loser to winner
  • e. novice to master, klutz to athletic
  • f. rags to riches
  • g. scared to brave
  • h. selfish to selfless
  • i. shy to confident
  • j. small to big
  • k. unloved to loved, nerd/geek/invisible to popular
  • l. ugly to beautiful
  • m. weak to strong

8. Opposites Attacked! I love when characters are created with traits opposite to what might be prototypical for their job, background, or character “type”. It’s a nice way to help keep characters relatable and flawed. And you can employ the above classic transformations to help generate ideas: The tortoise who wanted to fly, the eagle who COULDN’T fly, the gumshoe groundhog afraid of shadows, etc. Along the same lines, try creating characters with purposefully contradicting, conflicting, and/or ironic traits: the veterinarian who is allergic to pets, the vegan butcher, the pilot with acrophobia, etc. The same goes for objects and setting: Camouflage high heels or how about the world’s most boring amusement park?

9. Use word play as a vehicle to drum up ideas. This can be through alliteration (a bit overused in character names, IMHO), anagrams, rhyming, palindromes, and even onomatopoeia. The best is you can apply these to book titles, character names, gadgets, and places/settings. “OW-L” is my latest idea cooked up through wordplay.


10. Stuff… Everybody loves stuff. Kids REALLY love stuff. Thinking up your own breakfast cereal, fast food restaurants, gadgets, rusty skeleton keys, maps, sneakers, thing that came in the mail, old baseball card, vial full of fairy tears, or unexpected gift from a secret admirer are great fun! But how and why your characters utilize their stuff – that’s where small ideas can lead into tangible story pieces. Could you use an object as a motif, emblematic of something greater? Is it just a tiny detail or can you use their stuff to help build character and drive the story? Check out how other authors use their stuff by perusing the study guides at http://www.BookRags.com

11. Oh, the places you’ll go (write about): Ideas can be hatched through setting and the characters and situations you choose to put in those settings… some of my favorite, particularly kid-centric places that can help jumpstart the old noodle: playgrounds, movie theaters, bedrooms, attics, under rocks, between couch cushions, inside wishing wells, sewers, zoos, under couch cushions, backyards, alley-ways, sports stadiums, the mall, atop tree forts, toy stores, ice cream stands, the beach, undersea anything, caves, volcanoes, mountains, other planets, school, the library, the woods… How would your character act when taken out of their element and dropped into unfamiliar territory? What places can harbor a secret something?

12. New twists on an old classic… This is a tricky one, as the market is flooded with these types of books every year, and unless you’re doing it in a really strong, wholly original way (see: Lazar, Tara. “I Thought This Was A Bear Book” or Lazar, Tara. “Little Red Gliding Hood”), you are swimming against the current.

13. Endings! Some writers HAVE to know the ending of their story before they dig too deeply into the rest of it… as an exercise, try starting with a hypothetical last line as a fun means to generate story ideas. It at least provides a target (even if you don’t really know what to aim at that target yet) — I’ll give you a few and you cook up some simple stories for whatever the heck might have come before it…

No more tears or tantrums, not for now.
Gertie is a good girl (until she’s not again, anyhow).

or how ‘bout:

With Saturn’s rings back up in the sky and the stars all put away one by one, Martin P. Teabuckle, Cosmic Cowboy closed his eyes and hoped to dream; The moon could wait until morning.

or maybe a shameless plug from “Even Monsters”:

Sometimes even monsters need a kiss goodnight.


13. But maybe inspired ideas are your forte’ – so then, WHAT DO WE DO WITH THEM? I’m certainly open to suggestion. I’ll defer to a very non-kidlit author… Stephen King turned me on to the simple power of asking, “what if?” in his must-own book, On Writing. Take some of the above items you’ve toyed with and try asking what if?… Take a simple, commonplace situation and take it somewhere off the wall, take the implausible and make it possible. Ask questions!

What if Tara Lazar asked you to write a 400-800 word blog post and you gave her 1800?

AJ Smith teaches Children’s Book Illustration at Montserrat College of Art in addition to high school art in his hometown of Newburyport, MA. He also enjoys giving writing and illustration workshops at SCBWI. AJ’s first trade picture book, Even Monsters came out in 2014. His next book, “Tyra & Tops” hits stores in 2016.

Before writing and illustrating children’s books, AJ worked as an animator/designer on fun shows like Courage the Cowardly Dog, Sheep in the Big City, and Word Girl. He continues to work with exciting clients like Cartoon Network, Fablevision, PBS Kids, Ranger Rick, Scholastic, Sesame Street, Sourcebooks, and Weston Woods. See more of his work at AJSmith.net.

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evenmonstersAJ is giving away a copy of EVEN MONSTERS.

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