by Benson Shum

There are many ways to generate ideas. For me, sometimes it starts with an illustration. Sometimes it starts with a word, a line or a thought. Let’s start with the first. Whether you’re creating the illustration or have a painting that calls to you, there is almost always a story in it. If there isn’t, let’s create one. Start to ask questions. Think about every detail in the illustration.

  • What emotion does the painting give you?
  • Is there something interesting about the color palette?
  • How is the character posed?
  • What is their expression?
  • What situation are they in?
  • How are they feeling? and why? What are they wearing? Or not wearing?
  • Could this give insight into who they are?
  • Is there an environment? What does it tell us? where does it set the character in? Forest? A city? Is it a bustling city? or a slower paced location?
  • Could there be a possible conflict?
  • Conflict with their surroundings?
  • Conflict with self?
  • Conflict with another character?

Hopefully by the end, you will get a basis of WHO this character is, WHERE they’re from, WHAT is the possible problem and WHY. If not, that’s ok! We’ll try again, maybe we could add a character to it? Or look at the painting a different way. Maytbe place the character in a different environment. Create conflict. And start with the questions again!

If we were to start with a word, a line or a thought. I’ll use the example from my book ANZU THE GREAT KAIJU. If you don’t know what a kaiju is, kaiju is a Japanese term for “giant monster” like Godzilla or King Kong. I’m a big fan of King Kong, Godzilla, huge robots, giant monsters in general that tower over cities. So I wanted to take a twist on it. And started to ask “What if” questions. The thought or line for this story was “What if not all kaiju want to destroy?” That was the seed of the story.

  • What if Anzu comes from a family legacy of destroyers?
  • What if Anzu was different?
  • What if Anzu’s superpower wasn’t like his families?
  • What if Anzu’s power was kindness and gentleness?
  • How does that make Anzu feel?
  • How does that make his family feel?
  • What happens when his family finds out?

These are some of the exercises I use when trying to come up with story ideas. Even if the idea or solution doesn’t make complete sense, jot it down. You can always delete/erase it. But what it does do is get the idea out of your head and onto paper, which leaves more room for new ideas. Thank you for listening to me ramble! I hope it was helpful!

Benson Shum is a children’s book Author/Illustrator and Disney Animator. He uses watercolor, ink and digital tools to create his illustrations. Aside from writing and illustrating, Benson is also an Animator at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, where he was a part of such films as Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, Frozen 2, Raya & the Last Dragon and Encanto. Originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, Benson now lives in Los Angeles, California. Follow him online at, and on Twitter, Instagram & Facebook as bshum79.

Benson is giving away a copy of ANZU THE GREAT KAIJU, an art print, and stickers to one random winner.

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Prizes will be distributed at the conclusion of Storystorm.