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Why James Comey’s prepared testimony reads like a great American short story

James Comey Testifies At Senate Hearing On Russian Interference In US Election Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Former FBI Director James Comey’s prepared testimony about President Donald Trump — delivered on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee — is gripping.

But it’s not just gripping because of its contents, or its allegations that President Trump asked Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn or demanded what amounts to a loyalty oath. It’s gripping because of its style.

Comey’s testimony is astonishingly well-written, with beautifully precise sentences and a perfect five-act structure. It reads less like bureaucratic legalese than like a classic American short story.

Here’s why — on a literary level, making no claims toward its political or legal importance — Comey’s testimony works so well as a story.

Comey’s prose is clear and dispassionate, while Trump expresses a combination of menace and absurdity. The mixture of the two creates narrative tension.

Any good man-versus-man story needs to create a vivid contrast between the sensibilities of its antagonists — between Batman’s stoic grimness and the Joker’s anarchic playfulness, or between earnest Agent Cooper in his immaculate suit and greasy, creepy Bob. The audience gets the sense that there is something about these two characters that makes each antithetical to the other, and the resulting tension powers the story.

In Comey’s testimony, he presents himself as a detached, unemotional figure. The most charged word he uses to describe himself is “uneasy.” When he describes his facial expressions, it is generally to say that he kept his face neutral. And his narrative voice is terse and uninflected: crisp, clean, and unfussy, without ornamentation. That’s primarily because this testimony is a bureaucratic legal document, and ornamentation and emotions have no place in it — but its literary effect is a kind of Hemingway-esque restraint.

Trump, in contrast, bleeds emotion and unpredictability in Comey’s account. He demands loyalty. He frets over how to “lift the cloud” around his presidency. He throws out menacing non-sequiturs like, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.” He waves Reince Priebus dismissively away as Priebus tries to eavesdrop on his illicit conversations.

As a literary villain, Trump is so over-the-top that he becomes cartoonish, and within the context of this testimony, the contrast between his absurd menace and Comey’s terse detachment renders itself as a classic antagonistic tension.

The testimony has the basic structure of a Renaissance drama

The five-act story structure is an elegant template that we all recognize intuitively, because we’ve seen it so many times before. It was the structure of choice for Renaissance playwrights like Shakespeare, and it’s a fantastic mechanism for putting story beats into place.

Here’s how it works: Act 1 establishes the status quo and sets up a complication. In Romeo and Juliet, Act 1 shows us that there are two powerful families feuding in Verona, and by the end of the first act, two of their children have fallen in love.

Act 2 is rising action, with everything building up towards a climax. In Romeo and Juliet, it’s where Romeo and Juliet get married.

Then in Act 3, everything goes to hell: Mercutio and Tybalt die; Romeo is banished; Juliet is told she has to marry Paris. It looks like nothing will ever come together.

Act 4 is falling action. It’s putting the pieces together for the final confrontation. In Romeo and Juliet, it’s when Juliet drinks the potion that will make her appear to be dead rather than marry Paris.

And finally, in Act 5 the final catastrophe comes, and the story resolves itself for good or bad. Romeo and Juliet die, and their parents promise to end their feud.

Comey’s testimony, with its account of five different meetings and phone calls with Trump, is a five-act story.

Act 1 is the January 6 meeting in which Comey briefs Trump on certain “salacious and unverified” reports about him that are about to hit the press (presumably these), and assures Trump that he is not under FBI investigation. It establishes the status quo — Comey, as then-FBI director, is working on a scandal that involves the then-president-elect — and it introduces a complication: Comey is so struck by Trump’s reaction that he feels the need to document the meeting in a detailed memo and share it with his staff. It was, Comey makes clear, not his habit to document meetings with other presidents in this way, but this first meeting with Trump “compelled” Comey to document this and future meetings.

Act 2, the rising action, comes with the January 27 dinner in which Trump allegedly requests a loyalty oath multiple times. In the classic five-act story structure, Act 2 is meant to build tension, and Comey’s account is gripping:

A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.

We haven’t come to a full-on crisis yet — that’s saved for Act 3 — but the reader can feel the crisis building.

The crisis comes with the February 14 meeting in which Trump allegedly dismisses his other advisers to get Comey alone, brings up the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn, and asks Comey if he’ll “let it go.” That meeting is the linchpin of the arguments over whether or not Trump obstructed justice. It’s what everything else in the testimony revolves around.

Act 4 is the falling action, where all the pieces move into place for the final resolution. Here, it’s the March 30 phone call in which Trump complains to Comey about how the Russia investigation has created a “cloud” over his presidency. Trump urges Comey to complete the investigation quickly and publicly state that the FBI is not investigating Trump, and when Comey puts him off, he turns belligerent and starts to make obscure threats. In action-movie terms, this is when everything is gearing up for the boss fight.

Finally comes Act 5, the final resolution, the April 11 phone call. Trump calls Comey and demands to know when the FBI will publicly state that they are not investigating him. He makes oblique and threatening references to “that thing,” a phrase Comey claims not to understand. Comey tells Trump to make a request through the Department of Justice, effectively cutting off communication with the president, and the story resolves itself.

The result is that we can recognize the testimony as a real story, because it has the structure we subconsciously expect from stories. It registers as an elegant and pleasing narrative, not just an interesting collection of facts.

You can’t beat the kicker

A story is only as good as its last line, and Comey has a hell of a kicker in his: “That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.”

It’s a simple, elegant line that implies more than it says. It suggests a total rejection of each man by the other without quite confirming it, and it carries a decisive note of finality while leaving the aftermath of the story ambiguous. It makes it quite clear that we’ve reached the end of the story of Comey and Trump’s interactions, but it leaves ample room to think about what else might happen to the two of them.

It’s from the “isn’t it pretty to think so” school of last lines, with each word carrying unspoken suggestions, and it’s a fitting ending to a great American short story.