How to Write Like James Comey
Former FBI director James Comey’s testimony was released yesterday in written form ahead of his hearing today. It’s a matter-of-fact recounting of a few conversations he had with the president, so you wouldn’t expect it to be an entertaining read. But it’s well-crafted: just the right amount of detail, just the right amount of scene setting. Ever need to tell a story? Use these tips to tell it like James Comey.
Keep Your Introduction Short
Comey could have spent hundreds of words describing why he’s testifying and how he prepared his statement. Nobody cares. So he kept it short and sweet:
Tells you everything you need to know, right? When people are reading (or listening to) your introduction, they’re eager to get to the good stuff, so it’s not a great time to explain background information. Comey does have background to deliver—when and why he started keeping records of the conversations, for example—but he drops it into relevant points of the story as he’s telling it.
Write in Scenes
A conversation is more than just dialogue. Told well, it’s a scene. “When you set out to craft a nonfiction story, it doesn’t hurt to think of yourself as a playwright,” editor and writing coach Jack Hart writes in Storycraft. “You must, after all, create a stage…you can people it with characters. Then, with a snap of your fingers, the characters can breathe, move, act.”
Comey describes five conversations, and for each, he sets the scene. We know where they take place, when they take place, and what the mood was in the room. Here’s how he set the scene for the January 27 dinner:
The point isn’t just to entertain—the details may end up being crucial for connecting this story to other events and people. Does Trump have a habit of surprising people with dinners alone? Do the Navy stewards have a story of their own to tell? In a novel, these details would likely connect with other parts of the story. Real life is messier, but I get the sense from reading Comey’s document that he is laying the groundwork for future scenes that may or may not surface. Take this detail from an Oval Office meeting:
What’s the significance of the door by the grandfather clock? Maybe it’s to jog others’ memories: oh yeah, I remember being in a crowd waiting outside that door. Maybe there’s another reason he included that detail, and we don’t know it yet. All I know is, “The Door by the Grandfather Clock” sounds like a book I would totally read.
Expand and Contract Time
The events Comey describes span several months, and they include what must have been lengthy meetings, briefings, and dinners. Comey skips over the yawn-inducing and/or classified parts, but slows down for a careful play-by-play of the important stuff.
In that Green Room dinner, Comey describes the gist of the conversation rather than rendering it line by line; the content is important, but he doesn’t need to tell us every word. As the questions get more and more inappropriate—Comey says he is “uneasy”—the telling slows down. And then we get to this moment:
He doesn’t say yes, he doesn’t say no, he doesn’t even nod or make a face. That’s important, because the committee will want to know how he answered the question. But it also conveys how tense the moment was. And it shows that Donald Trump, a man so eager to talk that he continually interrupts himself, brought the conversation to a halt.
Have a Purpose for Your Writing
“Build your work around a key question,” advises Roy Peter Clark in his list of Quick 50 Writing Tools. In this case, the question in the air is Did the President engage in obstruction of justice? It’s not Comey’s question to answer; legally, this is for others to decide. But he seems to have chosen the details, and set the scenes, to provide the necessary information to answer that question.
In a novel, or an essay, we might expect the writer to help us understand the answer to the key question. “Help readers close the circle of meaning,” Clark writes. That won’t happen here, and it’s not appropriate in every form of literature either. Sometimes the purpose of a poem, for example, is to give the reader something to mull over. So consider what the ending of your story is, and whether it will occur on the page. And any time you think the reader’s interest might be flagging, try to work in the phrase “hookers in Russia.”