Modern Short Stories 2, edited by Jim Hunter, is an HKCEE text. What is special about a short story? It is tempting to think of a short story as just another novel but not as long. In fact, a short story is a distinct art form, and the challenges for a writer are quite special. This short story is only nine pages long, whereas a novel might have hundreds of pages. That means the short story writer has to establish characters and settings in very few words. Every detail has to count. The plot of a short story cannot be complicated; the writer has to engage the attention of the reader and make a point within a limited space. How does Maeve Binchy achieve that in Telling Stories? The character of Irene The opening sentence gives us a key point about Irene's character, although we are not sure yet why it might be significant: 'People always said that Irene had total recall.' It shows that she is an observant person with a good memory. As the story progresses, we realise that it tells us a lot more about her. As Andrew, her fiance, confesses to her that he no longer wished to marry her, she does not react with anger. She does not provoke a big row. Instead, she listens and keeps her thoughts to herself. We could describe this as a passive reaction. She absorbs what is being said rather than being active in her response. Irene takes control At first, we can see this passive response as being a sign of weakness. It is as if she is not challenging Andrew and is letting him have his own way. However, her lack of response actually makes the situation more difficult for him. She has been thinking through the situation, and eventually says: 'So I thought that perhaps you'd let me handle it my way.' Notice that word 'perhaps'. On the surface she is still being tentative rather than certain. She is still allowing him to think that he has influence. In fact, she has already decided what she is going to do. She is not passive at all. She is taking control, and in the end, gets what she wants: marriage. We can now see why the ability to have total recall is important. It is a way of gaining power and control over a situation. It helps her shape and interpret situations in the way that she wants. The character of Andrew Andrew's character is shown through his actions and voice. He is clearly nervous when he appears: 'His hands shook and trembled like the branches of the beautiful laburnum tree.' He is incapable of disguising his feelings or manipulating events to put him in a good light. His feelings just pour out of him: 'The words came eventually, tumbling over each other, contradicting each other even, punctuated with apology and self-disgust.' His willingness to let Irene decide what they should do could be seen as a sign of his good-natured character allowing her to have what she wants. It can also be seen as a sign of his immaturity and lack of readiness for marriage. He seems unable to make a decision or to realise the full emotional implications of what he is doing. A bare minimum of detail With these two characters, Binchy gives us the minimum amount of detail that is needed for the story. We do not know much about Andrew other than that he is a lawyer. We do not know what kind of car he drives, what food he likes, the details of his family background or his beliefs. We do not need to know these details so they are omitted. Other details that are omitted are more significant. We do not hear him make any great declarations of love for Irene. We are not told of such declarations in the past. Perhaps he is making the right decision. Perhaps he does not really love her after all. The plot The plot of this story is very simple. Suspense is built up because as readers we want to know the answers to two questions: What will happen when Andrew calls off the marriage? What is Irene going to do when she takes matters into her own hands? We are not told much about the outcome of Irene's decision. The final paragraph is told in her voice. She is clearly happy with the decision that she took, and the marriage has clearly survived. She has decided not to talk about it, and clearly Andrew has not raised the issue either. It seems she took the right decision.