Ask Lara - writing for tweens

on 07 January 2013. Posted in TV

Rachel Murrell on writing for an animated series about the everyday issues facing 9-to-14-year-olds 

Rachel-MurrellAs a pre-school scriptwriter, I don’t often get the chance to write about periods, snogging and priapic teenage boys. So when Ken Anderson and Sueann Smith of Red Kite Animation offered me the chance to help set up an animated series for tweens about ‘a group of friends on the rocky road to puberty’, I jumped at the chance.

The show in question – then called Girls’ Things – had been devised by director Mercedes Marro of Tomavistas in Barcelona. Ken saw its potential as light-hearted way to raise important issues for tweens about everyday moral dilemmas, difficulties in relationships, trouble with body image, etc. Confident that this would work for the BBC, he agreed to co-produce the show with Tomavistas, Dutch company Submarine, and Catalan broadcaster TVC.

I took one look at the show’s bible, and I was sold. The zingy design felt very original, and the fact that the scripts had to get across accurate information through character and comedy was the kind of challenge I love. And I wasn’t worried about lack of material. My own misspent youth was stuffed with enough accident and embarrassment to drive a fair few stories, and for the rest, I asked around. ‘What does an erection feel like?’ was a great conversation starter at parties.

No. What scared me was the breadth of the target demographic: 9-14 year olds. Kids in this age range have vastly different emotional and social understanding – not to mention different physiological experience. And that’s before you factor in the cultural differences between the three territories involved. Surely it would be impossible to write for all of them?

My other major concern was the show’s format: at three points in each episode the central character, 12-year-old Lara, had to turn to camera and ask the viewer a series of questions about the topic. Questions such as ‘If you realised your best friend had feelings for someone of the same sex, would you (a), tell the world, (b) deny everything, or (c) act as if nothing was going on?’ The intention was to get viewers to connect the events in the story to their own lives rather than just passively watch them unfold in someone else’s. But how was I going to keep my audience engaged with the story stopping and starting like that?

Fortunately, I had a genius script editor in the shape of Red Kite’s Elaine McElroy. Over the months, Elaine and I spent literally days on Skype discussing how our characters would react to events, and how far we could challenge the younger segment of our audience.

The answer was, quite far. My nine episodes put Lara and her friends through crushes, disappointments, betrayals, unwanted erections, invasions of privacy, the discovery that a friend has been shoplifting, another friend falling in love with someone who’s gay, and numerous other trials and tribulations. My fellow writers Cristina Jiménez, Sergi Pompermayer and Dave Fox tackled first dates, divorcing parents, lies, B.O., bras, spots and much, much more.

We knew we wanted to tackle same-sex relationships, but finding the right way to do it wasn’t easy. TVC were very supportive, seeing it as an important issue for the show to raise. They suggested we approach it from an emotional standpoint rather than a sexual one, and encouraged us to portray sexuality as fluid, not fixed. The BBC were also positive, noting that research showed that the issue is a live one for our younger viewers, and that homophobic behaviour is a form of bullying, which can affect anyone. For us, there were other worries: finding the right character to carry the story, and making it fun rather than po-faced. But we also had to be sensitive, honest and honour the experience of our widely disparate viewers, some of whom might be in gay relationships, while others wouldn’t know what the word ‘gay’ means.

ask lara

(Ask Lara - Red Kite Animation)

There were some bridges that we didn’t cross. Our characters might kiss, but they never had sex. And when it came to nudity, we never showed anything more graphic than a pubic hair. We didn’t need to. A story about love or erections or trying on your first bra didn’t need to be explicit in order to work.

For me the hardest part was phrasing the Q&A segments to open up discussion, but without making viewers disclose things they preferred to keep private. This was particularly tricky in an episode called Balance, which was about Lara’s feelings on discovering that a girl she admires is gay. The challenge there was to facilitate classroom discussion of same-sex relationships without patronising a gay viewer, or inadvertently outing them to their classmates.

Ask Lara – as it is now called – was a real challenge to write, and has tackled some complex emotional issues in a direct, honest and funny way. I’m very proud that it has been nominated in the Animation category of the inaugural International Emmy Kids Awards in New York next month. I’m even more proud that when my 12-year-old nieces watch it, they laugh at all the jokes.

Author photo by J Feray