Mixing genres has been the central storytelling strategy in Hollywood for at least twenty years. You simply have to write a script with multiple genres if you want any chance of selling it.The Informant! is a great example of what can go wrong if you don’t choose the right genres and if you don’t mix your genres the right way.
Before adapting the original book of The Informant! into a screenplay, the writer and director were faced with one of the three biggest decisions you must make in the entire writing process: what genres will we use to tell this story? The book recounts the famous case of corporate crime at the Archer-Daniel-Midlands Company in the early 1990s. So clearly the primary genre of this film is True Story, with strong elements of crime and thriller as well.
In my Memoir & True Stories Class, I talk about the obstacles, techniques and unique story beats of this increasingly popular form.
One of the biggest obstacles to writing any Memoir-True Story is that true stories often lack a natural build. They typically cover many years, which tends to flatten the storyline. In structure terms, true stories are usually missing the battle step, the final conflict where the winner of the goal is finally determined. Notice this causes the writer trouble all the way back down the line. With nothing to build to, the story line collapses into episodic moments.
Had the writer and director simply told a crime-thriller true story, they could have used a number of techniques to overcome this basic obstacle and probably made a pretty good film. But they didn’t. Instead they chose to add one more genre to the mix, comedy. With that choice they practically guaranteed failure. And even a terrific comic performance by Matt Damon couldn’t save them.
Comedy is one of sub-genres of True Story, but it is also the trickiest, which is why it is fairly rare. The reason is structural. Telling a true story as a comedy exacerbates the genre’s lack of a natural build. Comedy is experienced in explosive moments. Every time a character is dropped, punctured or abused, either in a visual gag or a comic line of dialogue, the audience (hopefully) laughs. But each laugh also temporarily halts the narrative drive. This is why it’s so important for any comedy writer to know which of the eight comic story structure they are using. The comic structure is what allows you to build the story to a climax and overcome the narrative-killing power of the jokes.
The writer of The Informant! seems unaware of the deeper structural challenges of the comedy and true story genres, which is why this film has a promising start and goes inexorably downhill from there. Cheerfully optimistic family man, Mark Whitacre, is a vice-president at Archer-Daniel-Midlands who cooperates with the FBI to uncover a mole sabotaging and blackmailing the company. The stakes quickly jump when Mark informs the FBI that ADM is also part of a worldwide price-fixing scheme.
You’ve probably noticed two big problems with this opening. First, the stakes start at a very high level. Given that most true stories lack a clear and strong battle scene, the story likely has nowhere to go but down.
Second, there isn’t a lot of comic potential in this set-up. The main opponents – the ADM executives – are a pretty bland bunch. The FBI agents lack the inflated ego necessary for comedy. Which leaves our hero, Mark, the informant of the title. Because he is a scam artist to the audience as well as to the other characters, he remains a cipher, unknown to the audience for most of the story. Structurally, that makes it very hard for the writer to puncture his pretentious bubble to get laughs. Instead of being a character clearly puffing himself up, he seems an ordinary guy under assault from his more powerful foes in the company. That’s not funny.
Of course, Mark is a puffed-up egotist who is only out for himself. But that only becomes clear to the audience as we move toward the end of the story and discover the scams this man has pulled. Making this story another example of too little, too late.
Even here, the writer commits a classic mistake in the way he builds the story line. Each new revelation is about how much money the hero has stolen, from $2,000,000 to $5,000,000 to $9,000,000 to $11,000,000. Boosting the storyline by boosting the money never works, because all you’re doing is adding numbers, piling abstraction on top of abstraction. Numbers have no emotional meaning to the audience.
Even worse, just adding numbers kills your plot, because it’s essentially the same beat. This mistake, combined with the tendency of true stories to have no real battle, causes this film to collapse long before the predictable last scene.
The Informant! may not be a very good movie. But it is useful to us screenwriters for the lessons it teaches. Many of the obstacles to writing a comic true story are found here. More importantly, the film shows how crucial it is that you choose the right genres to mix at the very beginning of the writing process. Most writers don’t realize that 9 out of 10 premise lines should never be written as scripts. Not because most premises are unoriginal, but because the genres you will have to combine to tell the story will only produce a story mess. Bottom line: this comic true story of corporate crime should never have been a movie.