What’s Your Point? Figuring Out
What Goes Into Each Chapter

By PJ Parrish

I dunno, maybe this is going to sound simplistic to most of you, but I’m going to throw it out there anyway: What should go into a chapter?

I’ve been thinking about this since last week after reading Jordan’s excellent post on narrative drive. In the comments section, BK Jackson wrote this:

The one of these I fumble with the most is having a goal for every scene. Sure, it’s easy when they’re about to confront the killer or it’s about a major plot point or a clue, but what about scenes that just set the stage of story-world and its people? Sure, you don’t want mundane daily life stuff, but sometimes I write scenes of protag interacting with someone in story world and, while I can’t articulate a specific goal for the scene, it seems cold and impersonal to leave it out.

And Marilynn wrote:

Working with newer writing students, I’ve discovered that some write a scene…because they are trying to clarify the ideas for themselves, not for the reader. 

I’ve found writers often struggle with this. It’s as if they just start writing, trying to figure out what the heck is happening, then they just run out of gas. End of chapter. But that’s not how it should go. No, you don’t need to outline, but you really need to stop and ask yourself questions before you write one word: How do you divide up your story into chapters? Where do you break them? How long should each chapter be? How many chapters long should your book be? And maybe the hardest thing to figure out: What is the purpose of each chapter? Or as BK put it, what is the “goal?”

Again, this sounds simplistic but it’s not simple. How you CHOSE to divide up your story affects your reader’s level of engagement.  The way you CHOSE to chop up your plot-meat helps the reader digest it.  The way you CHOSE to parcel out character traits helps your reader bond with people. And the way you CHOSE to manipulate your story via chapter division enhances — or destroys — their enjoyment.

For some writers, this comes naturally, like having an ear in music. But for many of us, it is a skill that can be learned and perfected. So let’s give it a go.

First, do we even need chapters? Marilynne Robinson doesn’t use them. James Dickey’s To The White Sea is one big tone-poem. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road uses a couple dots instead of chapter headings, perhaps to emphasize the in media res feeling of a long journey. (I was so pulled into that book I didn’t even notice it didn’t have chapters!) But most of us mere mortals probably need to break things up a bit.

Why? Chapters give your reader a mental respite. Chapter breaks allow the reader to digest everything that’s happened. They also help build suspense for what is yet to come. If you divide them up artfully instead of willy-nilly.

Maybe it’s helpful to think of each chapter as a dramatic island. (I wrote a whole blog about this a couple years back). Then build bridges (transitions) between them. Or think of each chapter as a mini short-story. Each chapter, ideally, has its own dramatic arc — a beginning to pull the reader in, a middle with meat, and a kicker ending that makes the reader want to turn the page.

But first, ask yourself this about each chapter: What do I want to accomplish?

The first chapter is sometimes the easiest.  We talk about this all the time here, especially in our First Page Critiques. To review: For crime fiction (if not all good fiction, in my humble opinion) an opening chapter should establish time and place, introduce a major character (often the protagonist or villain), set the tone, and at least hint at some disturbance in the norm. (A body has been found, a gauntlet thrown, a character called to action). Yeah, we get all that, right?

But, as BK said, things tend to fall apart after that. The deeper you get into your story, the harder it becomes to articulate what needs to happen within each chapter. For those of you who outline, maybe it’s easier. But I’ve seen even hardcore outliners lose their way. When you sit down to write, sometimes, it just pours out in this giant amorphic blob, until, exhausted, you just quit writing. End of chapter? No, end of energy because you didn’t pace yourself.

So, before you start a chapter, STOP.  Sit there and think, really hard, until blood beads on your forehead. Don’t write a word until you can answer this question:

What do I need to accomplish in this chapter?

Some other things to help you home in on chapter “goals.”

Write a two-line summary before you start each chapter. For a revenge  plot, you might write “In this chapter the reader will find out villain’s motivation for killing his brother.”  Or in a police procedural you might write: “In this chapter, Louis and Joe put together the clues and realize Frank isn’t the killer.”

Look for ways for every chapter work harder, to have secondary purposes. Main purpose: “In chapter four, Louis goes to the UP to find evidence on the cold case of the dead orphan boys.” But also in that chapter: “The reader gets some background on Louis’s years in foster care.”  (character development plus resonates with lost boy theme) Also: “Add in good description of the Upper Peninsula.” (Establishes sense of place and underscores desolate mood.”)

Maybe this is what BK was asking for — how to make those later chapters more muscular. As you go deeper into your plot, keep looking for layers you can add, ways to make each chapter have secondary “goals.”

Use physical tools. Don’t visualize your book as a continuous unbroken roll. Think of it as a lot of little story units you can move around. Think Lego blocks, not toilet paper. Some writers draw elaborate story boards. I’m told there is software for this, but Kelly and I are Luddites. We write the salient points of each chapter on Post-It notes that we color code for POVs and move them around on a big poster board. Vladimir Nabokov wrote chapter notes on index cards and shuffled them until he found a chapter sequence that made sense.

How do you keep your chapters from just petering out? Again, you have to THINK about this before you write. Here’s another tip: Look for logical breaks in your narrative for your endings. Such as:

  • Change of place. Say, you move from New York City to London
  • Change in point of view.  From maybe your protagonist to the bad guy.
  • Change in time. (a couple hours or a couple years depending on your story)
  • Change in dramatic intensity.  Say you just wrapped up a big mano-a-mano fight. The next thing that happens is having your hero recovering and thinking about what just happened. That might be a great place to start a new chapter.  It goes to pacing: Follow up an intense action scene chapter with a slower chapter that allows the reader to catch their breath.

By the end of each chapter, you should resolve at least one thing.  A car chase ends. A victim dies. Two cops figure out a major clue and decide to act. One character tells another something important about their background.  When you end a chapter, you want to send your reader a clear signal that what they just read is important. One trick I love: End a chapter just before the climax of a significant story arc: This is a classic trick of the thriller and mystery novel. You lead your reader right up to the edge of a tense moment then you end the chapter.  They have no choice but to turn the page!

I wish I could remember who said this: A good chapter ending does two things — it closes one door and it opens another one.

Whew. Enough already, you’re saying. I hear you. Okay, let’s move on to some easier stuff.

How long should your chapters be? I wrote a whole blog on this a while back, but if you don’t want to go back and read it, here’s the short answer: As long as each chapter needs to be.

It’s a matter of style — your style.  But, if you are following the idea of a dramatic arc for each chapter-island, the answer should come organically. As you move through your story, you might want to try for a consistency in length — be it 200 words or 2000 words. Why? I think it helps your reader get a sense of your style and pacing. But don’t sweat this too much. If you are moving along at a steady pace of say 1500 words per chapter and suddenly one comes out at 5000 words, you might want to go back in and look for a logical break in your narrative or action.  You might find, with judicious rewriting, that you’ve really got two tight chapters instead of one long one.

Okay, I’m running long again. One more question:

Should you use chapter titles? Lots of writers love these, especially fantasy and YA writers. I’m on the fence about them. I’ve never used them, but for one complex book, we did have three “books” that had titles. When chapter titles are witty, they can be great because they provide hints about what to expect within the chapter. But if they are mundane or obvious, they are just annoying and pretentious.

One story I heard was that before the release of one of her Harry Potter books, JK Rowlings refused to divulge any plot points. But she released three chapter titles — “Spinners End,” “Draco’s Detour,” and “Felix Felicis” — just to tease readers.

Here’s some of my favorite chapter titles:

“Down the Rabbit-Hole.” Chapter 1, Alice in Wonderland. So great it has become a modern metaphor, especially in politics.

“I Begin Life On My Own Account, And Don’t Like It.” Chapter 11, David Copperfield. Didn’t realize Dickens had a sense of humor.

Rick Riordan might be the chapter title king. Here are six from just one novel:

“I Accidently Vaporize My Pre-Algebra Teacher”
“I Play Pinochle with a Horse”
“I Become Supreme Lord of the Bathroom”
“We Get Advice from a Poodle”
“A God Buys Us Cheeseburgers”
“I Battle My Jerk Relative”

But here’s my all-time favorite from Ian Fleming’s Live And Let Die, chapter 14:

“He disagreed with something that ate him.”

And that is a good place to end.

 

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Make Your Characters Memorable

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

From Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever noticed that as a writer, you rarely can sit back and simply enjoy watching a TV show or a movie without thinking about plot or character development or pace? As authors, we “see” how the writers disguise plot twists or change direction. We may see behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz, but on those rare occasions when you can forget you’re a writer and utterly enjoy the show, that’s when you truly are watching something special.

So the next time you watch a memorable movie or TV show, observe the traits of the main characters, the ones you can’t take your eyes off of. What makes them unforgettable? For most of us, it’s not the high-octane action that sticks in our heads. It’s usually what makes that character human, something we can relate to.

Here are some ways to make your characters memorable:

1. Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey

• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

2. Use Character Flaws as Handicaps

• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

3. Clichéd Characters can be Fixed

• If you have a clichéd character, you may not need to rewrite your whole story. Try infusing a weird hobby or layer in a unique trait/quality that will set them apart. Maybe the computer nerd writes porn scripts for a local indie film company or the jock writes a secret blog under a girl’s name giving advice to teens on love and romance for the local paper. When that hobby is surprising and unexpected, that’s what will shine about the character and that’s what editors will remember.

4. Create A Divergent Cast of Characters

• Portray your characters in varying degrees of redemption—from the innocent to the “totally vile” characters.

• As in real life, not everyone is good or bad. They are a mix of both.

• Sometimes it’s great to show contrast between your characters by making them do comparable things. How does one character handle his or her love life versus another character?

5. Flesh Out your Villains or Antagonists

• Villains or antagonists are the heroes to their own stories—Spend time getting to know them.

• Give them goals.

• Give them a chance at redemption—will they take it?

• Give them a unique sense of humor or dare to endear them to your reader.

• The better and more diabolical they are, the more the reader will fear for the safety or well-being of your protagonist.

At the end of a TV show or a movie or your next book, characters that linger in your head are a gift that can help your writing. Examine what works in movies or TV shows as an exercise to tapping into your own creativity.

For Discussion:

1.) Do you have any personal tips for making your characters memorable?

2.) What characters have you been drawn to and find hard to forget – in TV movies, or books? Why have they stuck with you?

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All You Need To Know About Character Transformation

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

God was not pleased.Ocean-Storm-Waves_Free_Desktop_Backgrounds_chillcover.com_

The special creation he had lovingly shaped, and into which he breathed the breath of life, had gone off the rails. God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

Things went south from the very start. He placed man and woman in this beautiful garden with plants and animals and a Starbucks, and said there was only one rule: Do not eat the fruit of this one tree, okay? Is there any part of Do not eat you don’t understand? No? Very good.

But then the first politician the serpent whispered a sweet lie, and Eve took a bite, then Adam chomped, and it was bye-bye Eden. In the outside world Adam and Eve scraped up enough to buy a little starter home, had kids. But tragedy ensued–Cain murdered his brother, Abel.

Things only got worse. After several generations God decided it was time to clear the table, wrap it all up. But there was this one man, Noah, who was perfect in his generations, and … walked with God.

You know the story. God tells Noah that judgment is coming, so he is to build a big boat according to certain specs. Then he must bring in pairs of animals for the repopulation project. Noah obeys, gets the animals and his family on board. The flood arrives.

And Noah becomes the greatest financial planner in the Bible. He floated his stock while everyone else liquidated.

Ba-dump-bump.

So there is Noah, inside a stinky animal pen for over a year (when you do the math), and what is he thinking? We have a clue. The ancient Hebrew style of writing is minimalist, and leaves a lot “between the lines.” At one point we read this: And God remembered Noah.

This tells me that sometime during his voyage Noah began to wonder if God had forgotten him. Was he a sap for listening? Was this all a cosmic joke? Was he going to die out here in this watery wasteland?

What Noah experienced was his “mirror moment.”

Yet he keeps the faith, does not curse God. The flood subsides. Noah and his family and the animals step out into the new world.

And Noah builded an altar unto the LORD; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled a sweet savour… 

Noah is the same righteous man he was before the flood, but now his faith has been tested, and has become stronger.

This is Noah’s arc.

Discussions about character arcs can sometimes get overly complicated––complete with graphs that look like transcranial Doppler readings––or too simplistic (“Not every story needs a character arc!”)

But as I argue in my book, Write Your Novel From The Middle, it’s not really complicated at all once you nail that mirror moment.

And every story must have a character arc–or as I prefer, transformation–because, wait for it, you can’t have a story without one. You can have good writing. You can have distinct style. You can have quirky characters. But without transformation, friend, you will not have a story, and that’s what 99.9% of readers are looking for, consciously or not.

Your character’s mirror moment tells you what kind of transformation guides your story. It will be one of two types:

  1. The Lead character changes inside, becoming a different person at the end than at the beginning. In this type of mirror moment, the character is forced to look at himself and “ask” if this is who he really is, and wonder if he’s going to stay that way. The story question then is: will he actually transform into a different person at the end?
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Martin Riggs

This transformation is from one pole of existence to another. From one kind of being to another. It’s a fundamental change.

Examples of this type of transformation include: Rick Blaine in Casablanca; Scout Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird; Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon.

Note: This transformation does not have to travel from negative to positive (though most of the time it does). It can also be from positive to negative. A prime example of this is Michael Corleone in The Godfather. He transforms from good American soldier to soulless gangster.

There is even a type of transformation where the character is “offered grace” (as Flannery O’Connor put it) but turns it down. This is a tragedy. The character actually transforms backwards, becoming even worse off than before. Two of my favorite films of all time, both starring Paul Newman, are examples of this––Hud and The Hustler. 

  1. The Lead character realizes, right in the middle of the struggle, that there is no way he can win. The odds are too great. He is “probably going to die.”
Jodie-foster-clarice-starling

Clarice Starling

This transformation goes from stasis to strength. The character remains the same person fundamentally, but grows stronger in order to survive the “death stakes” of the conflict.

Examples of this type are: Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs; Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games; Dr. Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. 

Are there any examples of characters without any type of transformation? What about James Bond? Jack Reacher? They’re always the same, aren’t they?

They are the same fundamentally, but in those stories the transformation is of the second type, because the case or intrigue they are involved in challenges their powers and threatens them with physical, professional or psychological death.  

If the story doesn’t have death on the line, it’s going to feel flat.

The easiest way to find the transformation that is right for your story is to brainstorm your mirror moment.

Pantsers, you can brainstorm that anytime you like. If you’re lost in the middle of a draft (and I know you will be), the mirror moment will become the beacon that lights your way out of the thicket.

Plotters, you can determine your transformation at the beginning of things and know precisely how to outline from there (in my book I describe the “Golden Triangle” as the basis of a solid outline). Or you can put a moment in provisionally and change it later on as the story grows.

The point is that once you have it, it will illuminate the rest of your novel, from beginning to end. It will guide you in the formulation of plot, scenes and the ultimate meaning (theme) of the story trying to get out.

I’ll be in travel mode today, but will try to drop by if I can. Please continue the discussion!

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Bad Boy, Whatcha Gonna Do?

By Joe Moore

If I asked you to name 5 of your favorite heroes and 5 villains, which would you think of first? Which would come easier, the good guys or the bad? If you’re an action-adventure fan and you read a lot of Clive Cussler novels, Dirk Pitt would probably pop into your head right away. Now, name one arch-villain in a Dirk Pitt novel. We all know or have heard of Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne and Lara Croft. But name the bad guys they fought against. The reason it’s harder to recall specific villains is because it’s harder to write memorable bad guys. There aren’t that many Hannibal Lecters out there. But there are quite a few Clarice Starlings.

If you’re working on making your villain memorable, here are a few tips to do so.

Your villain must have multiple layers, perhaps even more that your hero. Stereotypical 2-D villains are boring. Why? Because we’ve all seen our share of non-motivated antagonists. A bunch of teens go to a cabin by a lake and start getting chopped up one by one. Seen that before? The villain is a killing machine. Why? Most of the time we have no idea. How about a good guy who turns bad. The motivational layers are all there. Just watch BREAKING BAD or DEATH WISH.

Your villain must be intelligent. Perhaps even more so than your hero. The brilliant bad guys are the ones that make the hero work really hard to solve the conflict. Their meticulous planning and concentration make them memorable. To see a brilliant villain in action, watch DIE HARD or SPEED.

Your villain had to have baggage. Preferably enough to make the reader cheer for him at least once. This usually happens near the beginning of the story where we see what motivates him. There is a hint of sympathy from the reader. But it doesn’t last long. Mr. Villain does something nasty and the sympathy shifts to the protagonist.

Your villain must face a fork in the road—a point in the story when he chooses to become a bad boy. The reader must believe the choice was voluntary. No one is born evil. They must choose to become evil somewhere along the way, for a believable reason.

Most important of all, your villain must be convinced he’s right. He needs to believe that his course of action is the correct path. Whether it’s revenge or jealousy, or some other strong motivator, he must do what he does out of commitment to being right. He must believe it and so must the reader.

As you write your villain into your manuscript, remember that he is not a throwaway character. He must be accepted by the reader for what he stands for and what he believes. For most of your story, he has to be as strong a character, if not stronger, than your protag. Make him memorable.

Now your turn. Name 5 of your favorite heroes and five villains your love to hate.

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Can Your Character Go the Distance?

A strong trend in the publishing industry is the concept of a series—books that are linked through characters, plot, or world building—with a continuing story line. Many publishing houses read a concept or an author’s voice and like it so much that they want to buy more than one book. And linking the books can also build readership or sustain an author’s readers who are already familiar with their work.

In a blog post on Nov 13, 2010 “What makes a book publisher drool? Can you say series?” Alan Rinzler wrote:

If we smell a potential series in a promising new submission, we try to nail it down with a multiple book contract. That trend is apparent in the numbers of new multi-book deals listed in Publishers Marketplace over the past 12 months, with the greatest number in the following genres:

Top genres for multi-book deals in 2010
Romance – 108 deals
Mystery & Crime – 73
Young Adult – 56
Middle Grade – 53
Science Fiction – 31
Thrillers – 29
Paranormal – 27
(Note: Alan Rinzler is an Executive Editor at Jossey-Bass, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons with over 40+ years in the book business.)

So I thought it would be fun to examine ways to create a series character with enough juice to build or sustain a readership. Below are some of my thoughts, but I’d love to hear from you, too.

• Paint a large enough canvass. Create a world that’s big enough to allow a character to grow and surprise a reader with different plot scenarios.

• Give your main character(s) enough emotional baggage & personal conflicts that they can develop and grow from, to keep the series fresh.

• Make the plots in the series challenge your character’s weaknesses or flaws. Conflict is vital for any book.

• Tie each plot to the character’s emotional soft spots and allow the character to learn from what happens to them over the course of the series.

• Add a secondary cast of characters who add value. Make them fun, quirky, and definitely memorable, enough to bring a unique touch to your series. They are especially valuable if they add conflict or reflect on your main character’s strengths or weaknesses. If your secondary characters are effective enough, this can mean spin off potential.

• In any book, plant seeds for a spinoff story line. If the novel takes off, you can capitalize on your germinating ideas.

• Tell the reader enough in each book about the character’s back story to entice them to read your other books, but don’t go overboard with a dump of information that will slow the pace.

• Avoid the formula. If something worked in book #1 in order to successfully launch your series, don’t repeatedly recreate it. Surprise the reader with something new, which will keep your creative juices flowing too. Don’t be so tied into your own success that you’re afraid to surprise your readers.

• On the flip side, don’t “jump the shark.” Surprising leaps in character motivation—just to add shock value without substance or believable motivation—may stray too far from center to sustain your readership. Recognize your strengths and find new ways to hone them.

• Keep in mind that your character may have to age if the series becomes popular. Have a plan for that. Three books may wind up as twenty+.

• Don’t be afraid to dig deep inside yourself to fuel the motives or experiences of your character(s). Making them real is vital in order for a reader to connect with them, especially over a series.

I’d love to hear other ideas, so please comment. What tips can you share on how to create a successful series framework? Or what has worked well in other series books that you’ve enjoyed reading?

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Writers of the Lost Arc

The annual Anthony Boucher Memorial World Mystery Convention, or Bouchercon for short, is coming up this week in San Francisco. It’s a good time for writers to gather with readers and colleagues, yak on panels, talk about writing, the business, sign books.
And hear things.
I always enjoy listening to Lee Child. He’s got this great English accent and droll delivery, and says things that are usually contrarian and funny.
At last year’s conference, Child was on a panel when the subject of character change came up. A constant drum beat in fiction classes and books on writing is that your character must change in some way. There must be a “character arc.”
“Why?” Child asked rhetorically. “There doesn’t have to be character change. We don’t need no stinkin’ arcs.”
Everybody in the room cracked up. Child went on to explain that he loves Dom Perignon champagne, and he wants it to taste the same each time. And so, too, he wants his Jack Reacher books to offer the same pleasurable experience every time out. Reacher doesn’t change. Reacher does his thing. It’s how he does it that provides the pleasure.
And I do love a good Reacher.
Then another of my favorite authors spoke. Michael Connelly was interviewed in a packed convention. The Harry Bosch books are the best series maybe  . . . ever. Connelly spoke about his decision twenty years ago to have Bosch age chronologically. So in each book Bosch is about a year older.
And that means he changes. He has varying degrees of inner development. Talk about your arcs! It’s still going on and it’s a wonder to behold.
So there you have it, a tale of two writers and two approaches, both of which work. They provide different experiences and readers can choose which they like best—or go with both, for variety.
When I teach about character work, I do say that a Lead character does not have to change in a fundamental way.  For example, in the film The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble does not become a new man. He does not have to discover his “true self.” What he has to do is grow stronger as he meets extraordinary challenges.
Similarly, Marge Gunderson in Fargo does not change, but shows her inner strength by solving a horrific crime, far beyond what she’s had to deal with before.
So in this kind of thriller, the character is already who he or she needs to be, but gets tested and strengthened.
A nice wrinkle to this type of story is when the Lead’s strength inspires another character to change. That’s what happens in The Fugitive. Kimble’s relentless search for the killer of his wife turns Sam Gerard from a lawman who “doesn’t care” about the facts of a case, to caring very much indeed.
In Casablanca, you have both kinds of change. Not only does Rick Blaine change radically, from a man who wants to be left alone to one who joins the war effort, but so does the little French captain, Louis.  Rick’s act of self sacrifice at the end inspires Louis to leave Casablanca with Rick, also fight the Nazis. It is, of course, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So let’s talk about what you like in a series character. Do you want to see development over the life of the series? Or would you rather be able to pick any title at random and have it be pretty much the same—only enjoyably different?
What are the hallmarks of your favorite series?
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