How to Find and Fill All Your Plot Holes (How to Outline for NaNoWriMo, Pt. 4)

How to Find and Fill All Your Plot Holes (How to Outline for NaNoWriMo, Pt. 4)

How to Find and Fill All Your Plot Holes (How to Outline for NaNoWriMo, Pt. 4)What is the single most important job of an outline for NaNoWriMo—or any other book at any other time of the year? We might come up with lots of answers, but they all tend to boil down to just this one: avoiding plot holes.

I hate plot holes. They drive me bazooey.

There you are, cruising along in a lovely story, full of lovely people, doing all kinds of fascinating things—when, bam!, you hit a massive plot hole. The story bounces three feet off the road, hits asphalt with a vertebrae-crunching thud, and half your lovely people (and their luggage) tumble right out the back of the story.

What a mess.

Readers don’t much like plot holes either, but I think we writers have a special hatred for them, for the simple reason that we have to fix them. Unfortunately for us, filling plot holes is never quite as simple as strategically drizzling a little hot tar.

However, on the positive side, if you make the time to approach your plot holes in a purposeful and knowledgeable way during your outline, filling them in doesn’t have to be tedious. It can actually be one of the most enjoyable parts of the entire writing process.

Why Your Outline Is the Best Place to Deal With Plot Holes

The reason I became an outliner in the first place was because I kept running afoul of massive plot holes in my first drafts. Fixing them was a gargantuan task simply because it meant not only figuring out where the story had to go from there, but also returning to fix everything I’d written up to that point, in order to make it all fit.

Plot holes are almost always the result of the story that’s already behind you—not the story that’s still ahead of you.

This means dismantling and rebuilding everything you’ve already created up to that point. If you’re discovering these plot holes while in the midst of your first draft, you’re going to have to dismantle everything—plot, theme, character motivations, narrative, prose, and the Muse only knows what else. Ugh.

But if you’re using your outline to spot the plot holes before they even happen, the most you’re going to have to dismantle is your idea of the story up to that point. You don’t have to rewrite a thing. You just have to cross out a few lines, turn the story in its new direction, and keep on trucking.

It’s so easy. Nothing intimidating about it at all. More than that: it’s fun.

Too often, discovering plot holes in the drafting stage feels like an exercise in self-flagellation: You messed up. You made a mistake. You weren’t a good enough writer to see this plot hole a mile off. Now you have to get down on your hands and knees and pay reparation.

It’s not like that at all in the outline. In the outline, discovering plot holes is exciting: Oh, look at this, a blank spot in the story you haven’t explored yet. What might you find? What’s this—a fork in the road? Which should you take? Why not both? Let’s sniff down first one trail, see what we find, and if we don’t like it, skip on back and try the other trail.

If you make a wrong choice in the beginning, there’s no rewriting involved, and the amount of time “wasted” is likely to be measurable in minutes rather than days.

3 Questions to Ask to Find Your Plot Holes

As per the previous posts in this series, you should already have a good chunk of your outline—and thus your story—figured out by the time you’re ready to tackle your plot holes head on. You’ve unearthed the skeleton of your story’s premise, plot, conflict, and character motivations. You’ve then breathed life into that skeleton by filling it with the beating heart of theme and character arc.

In short, you know quite a bit about your story by now. In seeing what is there, you’re ready to begin identifying what isn’t—in short, your plot holes.

Ask yourself the following three questions to suss out all the blank and/or weak spots in your story.

1. What Don’t You Know About This Story?

Plot holes are nothing more or less than incomplete or incorrect causes and effects. Something happens within the plot that wasn’t set up properly or that defies logic. Inevitably, these result from blank spaces within the story—areas you didn’t fully explore in order to causally link one part of your story to another that follows.

The first thing to do in hunting down these plot holes is simply to look into the darkness. Ask yourself: What don’t I know? What are you taking for granted about your characters, their motivations, and the consequences of their choices?

Sit down with your notebook and pen (if you’re outlining longhand, as I do) and consider what you don’t yet know about your story.

Completed Novel Outline Wayfarer K.M. Weiland

My outlining setup. Plot holes are afraid of bright colors, don’t you know?

Several specific areas to consider are:

  • Character Motivations

Consider all the important actions you know your characters will be taking within the story so far. Why are they doing these things? What are the story-specific causes that are creating these effects? The vast majority of plot holes arise from faulty character motivations: actions that have weak or nonexistent setup.

  • “Filler” Scenes

Take a look at the scenes you already know will be happening in your story. Usually, these are “big” setpiece scenes, perhaps even scenes you’ve been dreaming about since the very moment you came up with the story idea. But what happens in between these big scenes? What’s the filler that links them? Each scene must lead naturally into the next, which means there must be a causal chain to keep them from feeling like random episodes within the plot.

  • Character Relationships

What specific scenes and events are occurring to advance your characters’ relationships? This is especially important to consider with romantic relationships, but also just generally with any relationship that will evolve over the course of your story. If the characters start at Point A and end at Point B, they must experience obvious “marker scenes” along the way that create the progression in the relationship. Your feisty romantic couple can’t logically go from hating each other at the meet-cute to being true lovers at the end, unless you’ve filled in the blanks in between.

2. What Are the Specific Questions That Need to Find Answers?

Outlining Your Novel 500The most valuable weapon in your outlining arsenal is the question mark. At every juncture in your brainstorming process, ask yourself questions. Lots and lots of questions. Here’s a quote from my book Outlining Your Novel:

When you get stuck—and you will get stuck—remember to ask yourself questions. Instead of stating the problem—“the princess is trapped in the high tower”—phrase it as a question—“how can I get the princess out of the high tower?” It’s amazing how much creativity can be unleashed with a question mark. For a squiggly line with a dot at the end, it wields untold power. Periods put a full stop on inspiration. They indicate whatever idea the preceding sentence holds is complete unto itself and doesn’t require further exploration. A question mark, on the other hand, is a swinging door, urging us to step forward and peek through the opening. What’s in there? How can we find it? How can we use it?

The General Sketches section of the outline is all about asking questions, finding their answers, then looking again to discover what new questions have arisen. When you run out of questions (which will continue through the next couple of outlining steps, which we’ll be discussing in future posts), that’s when you know you’ve finished your outline.

The more explicit your questions, the more explicit and helpful your answers can be. These questions will arise out of your discovery of the “blank spaces” in the previous section. They will be specific to your particular story and its needs.

As an example, here are several specific questions I came up with during this section of my outline for my portal fantasy sequel work-in-progress Dreambreaker:

  • What plan is Isla (a minor antagonist) concocting?
  • What is Thorne (a potentially shady sidekick) doing for Chris (the protagonist)?
  • What does Quinnon (a bodyguard) do to “protect” Allara (the co-protagonist) that gets them both in trouble?
  • How does Chris gain enough power to threaten the Council?
  • How is [Spoiler] playing both sides?

If I left any one of these questions unanswered, I would end up with tremendous plot holes. Every single event in the story will affect every single event to follow, which means if I leave them blank in my own mind early on, I will likely end up failing to properly set them up subsequently.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook computer program logo(The Outlining Your Novel Workbook software offers a handy feature for highlighting the “incomplete” scenes in your scene list, so you can make sure to answer all the important questions.)

Outlining Your Novel Workbook Software Connecting the Dots

3. What Are the Subplots?

I’m often asked: “How can I outline subplots?” Ultimately, you outline subplots just as you do any other aspect of the story: by being aware of them. This filling-in-the-blanks segment of your outlining process is the perfect place to dig up those important subplots and look at them in the full light of day.

Start by writing yourself a list of all the various story aspects you have yet to explore in any depth. Particularly, you might want to consider the following:

Once again, the list you come up with will be very specific to your story. This is what mine looked like:

Finding Plot Holes in Your Outline

One of the best places to look for plot holes is in your subplots.

  • Romance
    • Chris and Allara
    • Allara and political courtship
  • Chris’s Investigation of the Rending
    • Geographical consequences of “Rending” of worlds
    • Clues and search for the “Pieces”
    • Clues and discovery of main antagonists
  • International politics
    • Rivale
    • Koraud
    • Cherazii
    • Laeler Council
  • Civil Revolution
    • Sirra
    • Thorne

Depending on the scope of your story and its stakes, your list may not be this long (or it may be longer!). You may also choose to eliminate or minimize some of the subplots in order to streamline your main plot. But in creating a list of all your options, you can figure out which are crucial and what further discoveries you need to make sure they fit into your story with believable cause and effect.

The Easy Patch-and-Fill Method for Stopping Plot Holes Before They Start

Now that you’ve identified all these potential plot holes—all these questions—now what?

Now is where the fun begins. You get to start brainstorming answers, throwing ideas at the wall, and seeing what sticks. Ask lots of what if? questions.

What if the hero had an evil twin? What if the heroine adopted her sister’s baby? What if the bad guy insinuated himself into the hero’s inner circle? What if, what if, what if? The possibilities are gloriously endless.

When you’ve come up with an idea you like, stop and highlight it in your chosen color (blue is mine). When you find that in answering one question, you’ve raised a new question (or three), highlight them in a different color (green, for me). This way, you can return to your notes, save the “Keeper” ones and create a new list of Questions, using your green highlights.

Highlight Plot Holes in Outline

I use blue highlights to indicate “Keeper” ideas and green highlights to indicate new Questions that have arisen.

This is, bar none, my favorite part of the outline. It’s like watching the sun rise over the horizon. What was once a vague and murky landscape suddenly becomes a clearly defined vista. All the pieces start materializing. The story is there. You’re not even so much writing it as watching it complete itself. It’s magic!

And the best part is that, when you’re done, you will have a rock-solid story, tested and re-tested by logical questions to make sure you can safely drive your first draft straight on through with hardly a bump.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’re going to talk about how to outline your characters’ backstory to create amazing subtext for your plot.

Previously in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What do you find most frustrating about plot holes in your story? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. M.M.Martin says:

    Actually, I LOVE plot holes!

    Every time I notice one of my characters behaving in ways that seem irrational or implausible to the story, I take a step back as a writer. “What?” I think. “Why would my villain do that? Isn’t it obvious that he’s setting himself/herself up for failure when my heroes come charging in?”

    Then it hits me: the villain is PLAYING my heroes. I can make a delicious trap that will stump my heroes and make my villain seem more frightening. OR my villain is making an emotionally-charged decision based on a backstory I have yet to create. Such a backstory will make him human and inherently flawed. He’ll make the MISTAKE that takes down his own plot goal, and if this villain is nuanced enough, the readers will begin to sympathize with him. The villain is acting contrary to my heroes because of a real and emotional past that drove him to do the things he does, for good or evil. There’s sympathy and compassion and a frightening responsibility laid on the world, that we treat other humans better, lest we create villains of them.

    I LOVE plot holes!

    Plot holes don’t ask, “What’s next?” They ask, “Why?” As a writer of epic fantasies, there’s nothing I adore more than “Why?”

    Not every plot hole will be preserved — usually they drive me to create a more logical cause and effect — but when they do remain, in that pristine, illogical form, they give me the opportunity to expand the humanity of my characters. Humans are capable of logic, but we are rarely rational. That’s the beauty of a plot hole. Sometimes, by explaining WHY the plot hole is not a hole at all, but a lapse in rationality by a character, we allow our characters to be more human than ever. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exactly! This is how I feel about plot holes as well. But I’d much rather discover them in the outline where I can create the surrounding context more easily than in the first draft.

      • M.M.Martin says:

        Yes. It’s a terrible feeling having to delete several chapters due to an unforeseen problem. 🙁

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          So much easier to delete in the outline–when it’s just a few paragraphs!

          • I recall several years ago watching the video podcast of Ron Moore, the producer of the new “Battlestar Galactica” then on SciFi.

            Mr. Moore would go into details of writing, editing, etc, and one time shared about how he had written a subplot that covered several episodes – then got to a point where he was convinced it wasn’t going to work. He re-edited and sometimes re-shot parts of 3 or 4 episodes that had already been filmed but hadn’t yet aired to change the subplot.

            He confessed that one of the episodes ending up with a poor story because of that, and I set about trying to decide how I would have redone that episode (premise, motivations, etc) That was probably my first venture into fiction, and here I am.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            It’s always interesting to me to hear how other writers discover and amend their plot problems. It makes me much more forgiving of any weak spots in their storytelling!

  2. This has become pretty much my favorite part of writing! Once you have so many pieces, the rest of the story is just a logical conclusion waiting to be recognized. It’s an awesome feeling to recognize it as it falls into place. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally! This is where the creativity really comes out and you start discovering what your story really has to offer.

  3. G-d bless the Weiland.

  4. I see too much of this in movies and TV. They have plot holes big enough you could drive a semi through. Sometimes it’s sloppy editing. Certain scenes get cut for time, and those scenes are the ones that explain everything. I notice that when I watch the deleted scenes on the DVD. Sometimes it comes across as the deus ex machina, literally God from the machinery. Something magically appears to make everything right. I expect that in Disney animated movies. I don’t expect it anywhere else. I have to watch that. I give a pass sometimes to nonfiction stories. There, things do happen for unexplained reasons. Truth can be stranger than fiction.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. Deus ex machina is what results when little plot holes aren’t filled early on. They just keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger, until there’s a gaping mess the author has to pretend away in the end.

  5. In that picture at the top of the page, I hope that’s dirt he’s shoveling to fill the plot holes. I see too many writers shovel something else to fill plot holes. I won’t use the word, but I know it’s very prevalent in western Nebraska. It’s also very prevalent in political speeches. Lol

  6. I had to grin when I noticed Quinnon’s name in your `Stormbreaker’ example. 🙂

    I find that I can’t think out a plot until I see my characters interact, so I write a beginning (not necessarily the one I’ll end up using) before I do much by way of outlining. Actually, what I find works best for me is to write for a bit, pause and outline, then write some more. There are times when I know I’m writing a plot hole but need to write farther and learn more of the world and characters before I know how to fill it. (My process is a strange one.) I make a note of those places so I can come back later. For me, nothing is solid until the second draft. I guess my first draft (plus several hundred three-by-five cards, a stack of research books with lots of underlines, and a jotting notebook) IS my outline. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I actually really like the approach of writing a first chapter and getting a feel for the characters. I’ve never done it that way myself, but it’s a good step, since you never truly know the characters until you throw them onto the page and see how they feel within the narrative.

  7. Will story mapping help with finding the plot holes?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. Any brainstorming technique that helps you look at both the story’s big picture and its blow-by-blow cause and effect will be helpful.

  8. First, awesome advice. What I would do in my previous life as a discovery writer (only) was to make an outline of the story after the first draft was written in order to seek out the plot holes. That method did not work well. My short resembled a slice of swiss cheese more than an actual story. Planning and outlining helps fix that so much. I’m also finding that using scrivenar on new projects keeps that plot tight before the first word is even written.

    Second, it was interesting to see some of the writers here leaving comments mentioning that they view plot holes in a positive light. For me it’s always been “oh crap. Now I have to rewrite that part and dig my way out of this mess.” Viewing them more as missing pieces of a puzzle instead of mistakes in the first draft can work wonders for a writer’s pysche.

    Thanks for the informative and positive post 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The only reason we dislike plot holes is that they’re a ton of work to fix once you’re into the first draft. :p Otherwise, they’re wonderfully fun opportunities!

  9. Andrewiswriting says:

    “When you’ve come up with an idea you like, stop and highlight it in your chosen color (blue is mine).”

    Of course it is, Cap fan…

  10. Sonia Focke says:

    I have tried outlining in detail but just have trouble really getting the feel for the story that way. In my current story, I did do an outline: with plot points, pinch points, etc. Then started writing. Then realized that it was all c-, um, fewmets, that it wasn’t strong enough and too close to the plot of my previous book. So I ended up having to redo some of my scenes anyway. Several times. Axed one character, changed the direction of another, made another the Damsel in Distress instead… I get the best feel for problems while writing – not just of the scene I’m writing now, but sometimes it will fire neurons about future scenes. I’m going to try various methods for keeping the plot juices flowing for the next story, though – I really want to try and get a PROPER outline for that before I start.
    I’m really learning a lot through your posts- I’m just finding it a tad difficult to APPLY it 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As I’ve written before, I view outlining simply as applied brainstorming. You *want* to get into that place where you’re “inside” the story. Even if you’re not drafting the precise narrative, word for word, you still want to be in that creative place where the characters and scenes are real to you. Otherwise, the result will inevitably be boring (to you) and stilted in the execution.

      The process is a little different for everyone. You just have to follow your gut and keep playing until you find the right fit.

      • Oh, sure. I’ll probably never be a total planner, but I do want to try and figure more out BEFORE I get frustrated ’cause things “feel wrong”. I’ve found knowing about plotting helps me take that amoebus thing of a story idea and give it some substance. I’m just not used to being truly creative at that level yet; whereas if I’ve started a scene and realize it isn’t working (or have already written it), I usually have no problem brainstorming alternatives and thinking in terms of conflict, etc. Not very time-efficient, though 😀

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yep, this is *totally* why I was originally inspired to start outlining. Nothing more frustrating than getting halfway into a story and realizing it’s all wrong.

  11. This post came just in time to help me through some of my, hopefully, last plot holes before November starts. There is another question that I have found infintely useful when my scenes just don’t feel right.

    Why do things have to happen this way?

    I love asking this question. It has helped me find a whole variety of problems. Asking this question helps determine if you have written yourself into a corner or not. If this is truly the only way things can proceed and it still doesn’t feel right, then something needs changing earlier on.

    But sometimes, sometimes I come to the realization that things DON’T have to go that way and I end up with a whole new trail I can blaze to victory. It’s another arrow in our quiver we can use to hunt down that perfect story.

    I hope this helps someone even a fraction as much as this blog helps me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent brainstorming question! It always helps to look at problems from another angle, to consider every possibility. Often, we’ll have found the right solution the first time, but you never know what improvements you’ll come up with if you keep digging.

  12. I confess, I’m complicated.

    I want things to be perfect, but the more perfect they need to be, the more anxious I get about them.

    Those anxieties drive me towards the things that I am good at and comfortable at doing – and away from things that are new, appear difficult, or need to be perfect. Yesterday I feared opening emails from clients because I didn’t know if they’d be good or bad.

    And that leads to be obsessive/compulsive. My brain will push em towards things that I dive into, giving all my energy – even when it’s not what I’m supposed to be doing (I’m at work now as I type this.)

    I often amaze myself at how much I have accomplished given the low percentage of the time sitting in front of the computer that I actually suppress my fears and do something constructive.

    What drives me best is deadlines. When someone else comes to me and gives me a date, I can overcome those inner roadblocks and buckle down and do the work. So I’d say, regardless of how easy it is for someone, it comes down to willpower. Make a schedule and commit to it, blocking everything thing else out for at least that determined amount of time.

    • Write answer to the wrong post. How did I end up here?

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Hah. I did wonder what in the post spawned this thought process. :p

        • That was meant for “Being in the zone”

          For this topic – being a programmer I also think in logical chains. Of course it’s easier when the program tells you that the code is wrong (although sometimes it will run, often very slowly, when things aren’t quite right) but I spend much of my time walking or driving while playing out scenes in my head, trying to make sure all the logical connections fit. What would happen next? (and it pops into my head) Or, if I know what I want to happen, what has to precede it. How do it get from A to B?

          So yeah, I really enjoy and dive into that aspect of it.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            The story is a very logical beast, really. The trick is learning how to balance the creativity and the logic, so neither impairs the other.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great example of why it’s important for each of us to know our strengths and weaknesses–and how to hack our weaknesses so they don’t take over our lives. Good job!

  13. Great post about preparation. Of course, no matter how detailed your preparation is, there will most likely be a couple plot holes here and there. When I first started the series I”m working on, one plot hole that showed up on occasion is that I’d forget that some of my main characters have enhanced senses and other supernatural abilities. Sometimes a human would hear something they didn’t, or sometimes the main character’s “heartbeat sensing” didn’t work. (She’s half-vampire and can visually sense nearby circulatory systems from living things). Of course I’d always get a good laugh out of it when I realized they forgot their abilities while editing those scenes.

    But yeah, mapping out your story can make the difference between properly setting up a vital character or important object instead of it just popping out of nowhere. Same thing goes for a character or important object spontaneously disappearing from existence half-way through the story with no further references.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, you never really know every step that will be required in the story until you’re actually on the ground, walking it out, step by step, with the characters. As Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

  14. Hannah Killian says:

    I think I found a plot hole. In my current WIP, the hero, who is the masked vigilante, fights his cousin, who is the Captain of the Guard, a few times in the story. Question is: How is the hero, when he’s not being Robin Hood/Zorro supposed to interact with his cousin without his cousin noticing the hero and the masked vigilante are the same person? Like, how is he supposed to not notice the hero’s mannerisms and swordplay is similar to the vigilante’s mannerisms and swordplay?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good question… but in all fairness, I think you could probably get away with a bit of a pass on this. This is a widespread trope in vigilante fiction. Nobody recognizes Clark Kent as Superman when he wears his glasses? No one recognizes Zorro’s mustache? Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

  15. In journalism you’re supposed to ask questions to get to the heart of the story. I learned that years ago and understood it well. It’s not a new concept. And yet, as I read this piece and learned the power of the Question Mark during the outline phase, it left a deep imprint in my forehead the size of my palm! (whack! I could have had a V-8) But seriously, one reason I enjoy reading your blogs is the discovery. It helps me think, gain some focus, and motivates my imagination.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great to hear you had a good discovery! 🙂 Many of my best discoveries about writing are things that were sitting right in front of me in plain view all along.

  16. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says:

    I gotta tell you – I was totally skeptical after reading this and even writing out all the holes and specific questions for myself, that just sitting down and letting out a free flow of “what ifs” would actually work for me or give me any useful insight and clarity to my story. Not because I doubt your methods (I live for reading this blog) but because I was doubting my own abilities. But WOW – it really worked! Like really, really! It was amazing. The ideas were just flowing so beautifully, and phrasing each of them as “what if” helped so much. So much of the progression of the story that I had no clue how to write before now has just suddenly become completely clear to me! As always, I find myself incredibly grateful and straight up amazed at how almost magical in its immediate helpfulness everything you write is. Thank you, thank you!

  17. I’m glad to know when I can start writing the actual story. That answers my question from yesterday, talking to a friend. I, too, write, then outline/brainstorm. This is my first novel, and I love when scenes and dialogue just come to me while I’m doing other things.

    I’ve got my protagonist from his village to the city, and I have a good idea what/how the ending is, but what are they going to do in the meantime? What must they do to solve the problem, get one place to another; people to see, things to do, places to go, but who? what? where? Do I make smaller questions from the greater questions? Focus on the secondary characters (that’s sub-plots, right?) until something answers those questions? Someone needs to be healed. I’ve figured out who can do the healing. MC has actually already met the healer, but doesn’t know it. How can he find out?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’ve already got a great list of questions. Just sit down with a pen and paper and start answering them. They may not be the right questions, but working through them will help you find the right ones.

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