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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Make Your Synopsis Intriguing


Yeah, I know. Everyone hates writing a synopsis, so don't feel bad if you do too. You can take comfort in knowing that chances are, your synopsis won't be any worse than everyone else's synopsis. But on the other hand, what if your synopsis is better than the others? What if it is not only good, but intriguing? Won't that give you an edge in the competition?

I'm assuming here that you've already got a synopsis written. If not, get busy. If you're having trouble there, go look up Alicia Rasley's synopsis workshop at or Lisa Gardner's at

But here you are, looking at it and it bores even you. You know it's not going to enchant a judge or editor. Your story is a good one. So why doesn't that come out in your synopsis? Let's look at some things that might make it better.

Just like your story, your synopsis needs to open with something intriguing that carries the essence of your theme. I think it's a mistake to go overboard with a big shocker, or to be funny when your story is not a funny one. But find something that makes the reader want to read further. Look at your opening line in your manuscript. Can you find a way to pirate that into your synopsis opener? Or could you re-state your story theme in one sentence? Here's my opener for HIS MAJESTY, THE PRINCE OF TOADS:

Sometimes it takes more than a kiss to change a toad into a handsome prince.

Right away you know it's a take-off on the Frog Prince, and humor is a part of the story. There's even a hint of the conflict to come because you know just one kiss isn't going to do it this time.

Your resolution is as important as your beginning. Once you've found your intriguing opener, think of how the story resolves, and ask yourself how you can carry the same theme to create a strong resolution that ties up the whole story. Here's the ending for my Toad story:

What they share together is more important than her security and independence, for His Majesty, the Prince of Toads has become the Prince of Sophie's Heart.

Now you have the foundation. But filling in the middle is just as hard. But notice how the ending above pulled in the problem Sophie had to resolve before she found her true love? There's the true conflict -- Sophie's need for security that she could not trust to anyone else. Sophie is really the center of this story, but my hero also has a great deal of work to do before he can accept that Sophie really is his true love.

Conflict, not words, is what propels your synopsis, just as it does your story. Make the middle of your synopsis about the conflict. But also make it about the uniqueness of your characters. What makes this story and its hero and heroine unique? In a synopsis, you can tell instead of show, because you are summarizing.

When Captain Lucas Deverall returns from the Peninsular War to succeed to his deceased brother's title, he grudgingly decides to take back his wife. But even before he learns the circumstances of his inheritance, he encounters her at a New Year's gala. Shock sets in as he realizes the most beautiful woman in England is the same gangly, calf-eyed chit who tricked him into marriage six years before.
That's not how Sophie remembers it. She wishes fervently she'd had the sense not to scream when the drunken scapegrace crawled into her bed at her Uncle Harry's house party. True, she'd had a secret tendre for the handsome wastrel, until his scathing denunciation of her after their forced wedding. Then he went off to war without even consummating their union, and for six years she heard nothing from him.
Now the toad offers her forgiveness in exchange for his presence in her bed? Revenge comes more to mind.

Notice that Lucas's point of view of the conflict is immediately followed by Sophie's. If I were just explaining from an objective point of view, Lucas would look pretty bad. That's because he was immature and wild before he went off to war. He comes back changed, but that one incident is etched into his mind. This is the external conflict. But it's the internal conflict that really fuels the story, and it's their inner needs that keep them from relinquishing their old grudges. They have their minds made up about each other. That can't change until they accept the truth about themselves, and that's the real story. The rest of the middle deals with both the external conflict, Lucas's attempt to use his charm without losing his heart to win Sophie over, and Sophie's attempt at revenge, to steal Lucas's heart and break it, just as he did to her. But their interaction wears away their defenses and forces them to see themselves and each other as they really are now, no longer as they once were. And so they must change, or they will lose everything they truly value.

I said earlier, it's not words that fuel the synopsis. But that's not entirely true. My synopsis is a longer one because I chose to use extra words to give the flavor of the story. I chose to show rather than tell several points I might have left out, but I kept them because of their unique flavor. I could have told the entire thing in a page, but I didn't want to leave out the unique interaction that shows character growth in little steps of revelation.

Ask yourself what is the tone of your story. My story is a battle of wits and wills. It's light and humorous, yet with a deep understory as contrast. Wit obscures the depth of insecurity and tragedy both hero and heroine have suffered, and it demonstrates how they have learned to cope with life. But it also keeps them from growing into the next vital stage of their lives. So my synopsis has to reflect the wit of the story. If this story were darker, with its plot hanging on drama, my synopsis would have been written completely differently. So think about your word choices. What words carry the tone of your story? Be sure they are in your synopsis too.

I think the biggest problem most writers face with their synopsis is trying to tell the entire story in just a few pages. They end up with a bare bones skeletal outline that actually sounds like bones clattering along. But how else can they do it?

One problem is the wooden sentences that come from hacking down the plot to minimal words.
This is really two separate problems. First, the sentences start to have identical structure. Short, with subject then verb, and almost the same length. If you spot this, it's obvious you need to find ways to vary the structure. But the real problem is buried beneath the words. What you're really doing is trying to tell each point of the story. And yes, it's hard to pick out what points have to be there and what ones need to be left out.

What I'd suggest is finding words that generalize. Can you condense a section that describes an interaction into one fairly simple sentence. Instead of "He says she can't blah blah, but she says blip blipp", try "He persuades her to bleh bleh". Words like "persuade" or "convince" can work miracles. Find ways to say there is a disagreement over something instead of describing the entire conflict.

The same is true for your black moment. Condense it to generalities, but at the same time be sure you tell how this major change in your story occurs because of action by the hero and heroine and not anyone else. In my Toad story, Lucas makes the decision to help Sophie work through one of the most difficult times in her life by making his own major sacrifice for her. He might lose his leg to help her, but he runs the risk, not just because he loves her, but because she desperately needs his help to work through her own devastating dilemma. And this changes everything between them. So I can't just run this inner and outer conflict through a few sentences. It needs to be showcased for the drama it is.

Lucas, desperate to ease her pain, recalls the pure and perfect moments when they skated on the Serpentine, and he takes her to the estate's frozen lake. Sophie skates fiercely, aggressively, expressing the things she can't find words to say, advancing, then retreating, like Sophie herself. Even though excruciating pain in his knee warns Lucas he risks the loss of his leg, he joins her in a wild dash across the ice in the moonlight, that changes to a graceful dance like the flight of birds, and back to a gritty race, draining the last dregs of their energy.

And when you reach your conclusion, tell it in terms of how the hero and heroine have changed, so that they can now make choices they could not have made in the beginning of the story. This is the most intriguing part of your story, so give it full power through your choice of words.

(Oh, and did you notice the long, flowing sentences that mimic the graceful flow of skating over ice? Yes, that was deliberate.)

Choose the words that generalize, yes, but make them strong enough to carry the action. Tell your external conflict in general terms, but emphasize the turmoil in their hearts, and let the drama of internal conflict drive your synopsis.

Beginning, middle, end. Sounds simple. But getting it right is perhaps the hardest job we writers face.


At 2:24 PM, Blogger TiffinaC said...

You make it sound so easy... lol.

I do, thank goodness, have a synopsis, it's actually been parred down to three pages (contests I entered had a 3pg. max). I think it just takes practice to write them.

I'm much better at query letters, after my initial attempt, and can seem to say what I need in fewer words. I think I went through four drafts of my first synopsis, and that was because I was having trouble finding the right words to describe a lot...

I've cut all secondary character characters out of my synopsis to help keep it to a minimum (there is a second romance that carries into another book, but doesn't do a lot to push the main protag's story forward -- does that make sense)

I will probably hack away at it in the coming weeks for GH. I'm sure when I open it I'll be asking myself 'what were you thinking?'

Does anyone know how much the synopsis really matters in contests like GH? I'm not asking if it's unimportant, but what if it's obvious the writer cannot write synopsis but the story-partial they hand in is flawless or pretty darned close? how harshly would a bad synopsis go against them?

Those are great examples in the blog... I'm off to print it out.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I think the synopsis is important in that if it doesn't make sense or goes off in some strange direction, I'm going to think about whether that is the entry that should win the GH.

Sometimes the synopsis is important because I might wonder about something in the first 55 pages that will be explained in the synopsis. If it is, then maybe I won't think it is a problem.

On the other hand, my personal standards for a synopsis in a contest are low. Just tell the story in a clear way and I'm happy.

At 2:53 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I think the synopsis is important as a way of bolstering your story. Since too many writers get lost in the middle of their story and wander about until they find the story again, the synopsis can tell the judge whether or not you have your middle (of your synopsis, that is) in control. And if you've got your crisis, black moment and resolution spelled out concisely, they can feel reasonably safe that the rest of your story is in good shape.

I don't think a strongly written story would be hurt by a wishy-washy synopsis, but it could be a breaking point for s story that isn't quite as strong. And if your synopsis doesn't show you have the right story elements, it could pull you down. I have a friend who showed me her synopsis recently to see if I agreed with her on its flaw. Yep. It had no black moment. That made the entire story seem bland.

At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Kristin Wallace said...

These are all good tips. Because I work as a copywriter in advertising the synopsis thing is not as challenging. Breaking down big subjects into a paragraph is what I do all day long. But I will look and make sure mine has enough tone and isn't too dry. Plus, as I'm nearing the finishing mark some things have changed in my story since I wrote the synopsis.

At 3:54 PM, Blogger CM said...

These are GREAT tips. I am going to print them out and read and reread them as I work on revising my synopsis.

What do you do with subplots that can't be excised?

At 5:24 PM, Anonymous gaill said...

While I have enjoyed and learned much from all the previous blogs, this one on the synopsis is by far the one I need the most. I almost feel the need to sit down and write my elusive synop. I appreciate all the help you noodlers are willing to give us.

At 6:14 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I blogged about synopses here almost a year ago
And at that time I gave my synopsis formula. Here it is again (or go to the old blog for an easier read)

It is sorta like an outline of what Delle said.

I used to have difficulty writing synopses until my friend Darlene Gardner (Superromance author) gave me this synopsis formula. Darlene did not claim to have invented it and neither do I. I've seen similar versions by several authors, so to whoever first thought this up, Thank You!

This synopsis formula provides a structure which gave me a simple way to include in the synopsis the Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (concepts from Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, & Conflict:The Building Blocks of Good Fiction)of the hero and heroine and their backstory without having to try to weave it into the plot. My most difficult problem was solved. I used this synopsis formula on my 2003 Golden Heart Winner. So here, it is, and I hope it helps some of you Contest Hopefuls out there.

Diane’s (and a bunch of other people's) Synopsis Formula

A paragraph or one or two sentences that gives the story premise, like a back cover blurb.

The Goal Motivation and Conflict of the heroine (or hero) Include necessary parts of their backstory

The Goal Motivation and Conflict of the hero (or heroine) Include necessary parts of their backstory

The Plot (Just say, "The story begins with...")
Major turning points only.
Focus on the romantic plot, too.

The Black Moment

The Ending


Use as few names as possible. The hero and heroine, and one or two important characters. For everyone else, use terms like, the cousin, the heroine's best friend, her neighbor, his father, etc.

In Romance, it is the romantic plot that is most important. You can leave out or give only the barest summary of the external plot

Hope that makes some sense to all of you!

At 6:49 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

cm, sub-plots are my downfall. My plots are too complex, and often revolve on intricate details.

If your pared down plotline absolutely must have them, then they have to be there. Never make your synopsis so general it doesn't make sense. But if they're there, make them as minimal as you can and be sure you establish why it affects your main story.

Here's where generalizing comes in. The word "meanwhile" can be very useful. In my original Toad synopsis, I had the secondaryu characters and their less important love story because I thought it was integral. It took me a long time to admit they had to go, and once they were gone, the synopsis actually made more sense because it was less cluttered with detail.

Speaking of sub-plots, here's one to examine: I'm going to dinner this evening, meeting dh's cousin for the first time. But I'll be back later to answer any more questions that come up.

Now, take a look at that statement. It's important to mre and my life, but did you really need to know that? It would have been enough to say I'd be away but would be back later. Look at your synopsis just that way. What does the reader really wnt to know, and what is just as well left unsaid?

At 6:51 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

cm, sub-plots are my downfall. My plots are too complex, and often revolve on intricate details.

If your pared down plotline absolutely must have them, then they have to be there. Never make your synopsis so general it doesn't make sense. But if they're there, make them as minimal as you can and be sure you establish why it affects your main story.

Here's where generalizing comes in. The word "meanwhile" can be very useful. In my original Toad synopsis, I had the secondaryu characters and their less important love story because I thought it was integral. It took me a long time to admit they had to go, and once they were gone, the synopsis actually made more sense because it was less cluttered with detail.

Speaking of sub-plots, here's one to examine: I'm going to dinner this evening, meeting dh's cousin for the first time. But I'll be back later to answer any more questions that come up.

Now, take a look at that statement. It's important to mre and my life, but did you really need to know that? It would have been enough to say I'd be away but would be back later. Look at your synopsis just that way. What does the reader really wnt to know, and what is just as well left unsaid?

At 7:27 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Sometimes I deal with a subplot with a sentence, like saying, "the innkeeper's son and the maid have their own romance." Boom. One sentence.
Mostly I just leave them out.
I leave a lot of the external plot out, too.
Suppose you have an intricate mystery plot where the hero and heroine are led to the solution by a series of clues. I'd say, "Jane and Sam follow a complicated maze of clues until suddenly they discover the answer." That's all.

If you are writing a romance, THAT is the story. Focus on the romance.

At 7:51 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Kristin, I also have a background in advertising, and have never found synopsis writing too hard as a result.

A synopsis is not your book, magically condensed into five pages. It's a road map through the story. Think of Cliff Notes. A partial (which is what your GH entry is) consists of your chapters, which show off your writing in full, and this road map of the plot. How important is the synopsis? important is the plot to your book? It has to make sense and not put the reader to sleep. I leave out anything that doesn't advance the main plot, and that includes wonderful moments that develop character and romance. Now I'm left with the bare bones of the story, and I use language that is as dynamic and suave as possible while still being spare. This changes the tone, making it more journalistic. To remind the reader of my voice, I add snippets of important dialogue, as Delle mentioned. Or I might lift a particular phrase from a dramatic moment.

At 7:59 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Diane, that's a great summary of what makes a good synopsis. I remember when you first wrote that.

That's a particularly excellent tip not to refer to too many characters (I have many characters who never make it into the synop.), and to refer by people by their tags (pregnant cousin) instead of names.

At 8:11 PM, Anonymous beverley said...

In general, how long should a synopsis be for a 100k books. I know the GH says max of 15 but that is just so long. My synopsis is 5-7 pages double spaced. When I saw GH I thought I needed to make it longer.

At 8:34 PM, Anonymous Ami W. said...

This could not have come at a better time. The examples are excellent. I really struggle with synopses (synopsi?!) b/c I just can't decide what to cut and what to keep. Like subplots. I feel like they should be there, but I can see that they don't necessarily further the H/H's emotional arcs.

Thank you! :)

Ami W.

At 8:45 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

a seven page synopsis is fine!

I've heard the "rule" that you should have one page for every thousand words, eg 100,000 words equals 10 pages.

But none of that means anything. A good seven page synopsis that adequately and clearly "tells" the story is terrific!

I once sent a wonderful, thoroughly detailed synopsis, 20 pages for a 100,000 book, to my editor and the book was turned down. I think the reason was that I'd given too many details, too many things they could nitpick and worry about. So I believe shorter is long as you have the ROMANCE in the synopsis!

At 8:51 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Beverley, I think 5 to 7 pages for a 100,000 book sounds perfect as long as you have answered all of the relevant story questions.

Great post, Delle. Thanks for the help.

And Diane, the synopsis formula will definitely come in handy. Thanks.

At 9:17 PM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Diane wrote - "I once sent a wonderful, thoroughly detailed synopsis, 20 pages for a 100,000 book, to my editor and the book was turned down. I think the reason was that I'd given too many details, too many things they could nitpick and worry about. So I believe shorter is long as you have the ROMANCE in the synopsis!"

So true, Diane. You make a great point. You really need to get your story down to its essence and to only those things critical to the romance. And brief is good - if you're writing for Harlequin Mills & Boon for their short lines (Presents/Romance/Medicals etc) they want only a one page single space synopsis. For a 50K word story. It has to be tight!

Great post Delle. And Diane, I love your synopsis formula. So it's true, there is a formula for writing romance - or at least the synopsis - ha!

At 9:21 PM, Blogger CM said...

The flip side of Bev's question--how short is too short?

At 9:32 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

CM: I don't know that I'd go below three pages.

At 9:40 PM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

cm, I just looked up my 2002 synopsis for what was then a short contemporary and it came in at 5 pages. Good call, Esri:-)

At 9:52 PM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Esri, I swear I read your three as a five. Must be going cross-eyed.

But yeah, you want to give yourself a fighting chance to get your story across. An editor can no doubt read between the lines while a judge may be a little more disconcerted by a bare bones synopsis.

At 10:14 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Outstanding blog on something I would rather have a root canal without anesthesia than do!! I do have a synopsis for LOST IN LOVE. In its present form it is three pages long. (See tiffinac's comment about contests)I am thinking of entering a contest where they want a two page synopsis and I am thinking "Are you kidding? It took me forever to get it down to three!" I am going to print out the blog and Diane's excellent formula and see what I can do. I just feel that you never know when the synopsis might grab somebody! Any hints on how to turn a three page synopsis into a two page synopsis?

At 11:14 PM, Blogger Trish Morey said...

Shorten it? :-))

Seriously, doglady, try Diane's synopsis formula and see if that works for you.

I'd be tempted to go through it with a marker as well, or maybe a couple of them. Use one colour for major developments in the romance and another for plot developments. Highlight your black moment. Make sure you tell how it's all resolved (don't leave them hanging). Then look at what you've got, see if you can cut the unhighlighted bits. If you've highlighted everything, then check out the plot development bits and see if you can work them into the romantic development bits. If that doesn't offer any options, then you're going to have to write shorter. Which is where I came into this post - lol.

But no, I mean, condense sentences. Totally eliminate repetition and where you've maybe hinted at the same thing twice, albeit in wonderfully evocative ways. Cut it. You can do it.

And nnnh, you must really hate synopses - lol. They're not my favourite thing, but dental visits without anaesthetic - not this little black duck:-))

At 11:22 PM, Blogger Santa said...

Printing out these great pointers as we speak! I have been avoiding writing my synopsis for the longest time. Like Doglady, I also think that root canal does have a certain appeal...

At 11:25 PM, Blogger Darcy Burke said...

Great post, Delle. Wow Diane, great formula. And here's the scary part: I think my latest (and greatest, but that's not saying much, lol) follows it pretty darn closely. Yay me!

It's three pages and I don't plan to expand it for the GH.

Taking a moment to say this month-long series is awesome!

At 11:26 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I think you have to give up "clever" or your unique voice in a 3 page or less synopsis. Just the facts, ma'am.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

If you want to see some examples of "A Few Winning Synopses" you can go to Charlotte Dillon's Resources for Writers at

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Trish's comment brought up a good question: What's the right way to format the synopsis?

Guidelines for formatting the manuscript are readily available but I find less on formatting the synopsis and lots of discrepancy.

Should it be single or double-spaced? Should it have a header similar to the manuscript? Should it start at the top of the page or in the middle?

Any pointers?

At 12:16 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

If you've got a 3-page synopsis that says what it needs to say, you are The Queen! I think 5 is great, and I try for 7 at the max.

I know some people do single-space synopses for short category work, but for the Golden Heart and for most editors, it needs to be double-spaced. You can fudge a bit more on the white-space idea because you don't want dialogue in your synopsis unless it's VERY important. The last one I sent my editor has dialogue, and that was the selling point, I'm sure, because it's the crux of the entire story. But I've only done that once before.

Ami, I understand about the dithering. I do it a lot. If you're really stuck, go to an extreme. Capture the ESSENCE of your story in less than 100 words. Then expand from there. The essence is not the whole story, it is the quick answer to what your story is about, the "elevator pitch" you tell the editor between floors 5 and 23 when she gets off and it's too late to say anything more. It's the short back cover blurb that intrigues the reader so she wants to buy your book.

For APHRODITE'S BREW, coming out in March next year, it's simple: "What was meant to be a restorative tonic for women turns out to have an entirely different effect on men. And the bachelors of the Ton are running scared." For SINS OF THE HEART, coming out next June: "Sunrise on the Cornish Coast. Two ladies, one spyglass, two naked men cavorting in the surf. One of them is the man Lady Juliette hoped never to see again."

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

For a contest, the header and title of the synopsis have to be different from one meant for submission to an editor. For an editor, I center "TITLE Synopsis" on the first text line, and have contact information in a block on the left. Suppress header on first page but not the remaining ones. Header and rest of format should be like that in the manuscript. In a contest, leave off the conact info block, and remove your name from the header. You can even omit the "TITLE Synopsis" line by making it Header A, centered, then suppress on the remaining pages. On remaining pages, use Header B, left justified, which is suppressed on the first page. Or just do a left justification on one header. No one will object.

At 12:37 PM, Anonymous Margaret B. said...

Like everybody, I hate synopses, but this discussion has given me hope! Yes, I've written mine, and yes, I can hear those bones rattling every time I read it. The formula helps a lot, though. So does the tip about the synopsis as a roadmap. In my other life, I wrtie summaries and abstracts of other people's work, but somehow it gets trickier with my own stuff. It's easier to be ruthless about leaving out details when they aren't details you've sweated blood to create! Anyway, thanks ladies.

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was an amazing, excellent, and very helpful post. I'm working on a synopsis for non-GH novella and have found that like learning to graft stitches in knitting, practice really does make perfect.

Quick question (and I know the day for this discussion has passed) but will you all devote a post just to formatting headers and the entry? I've heard horrible rumors of entries being disqualified for things like not numbering the synopsis separately from the MS, and I don't think the GH rules are totally clear on that. Delle's last answer was a little bit like Greek to me - sorry for the nitpicky question!

Margaret M

At 4:06 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...


The rules say this: The partial manuscript shall consist of consecutive pages beginning with page one, typed, and with at least the general body of the manuscript and synopsis double-spaced. The synopsis shall not be more than 15 pages. The total partial and synopsis shall not exceed 55 pages combined. The complete manuscript shall have at least the general body of the manuscript double-spaced.

I don't see where it matters as long as the pages are consecutive.
This is a good question for tomorrow though. I'll pass it along to Jill.

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

My headers are
left margin- TITLE by Diane Gaston,
right margin- page number

I only put contact information on the first page of the synopsis or on the Title page of the ms, but that would be for submission, not for the contest.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Margaret, that might be because I use WordPerfect not Word, and the terms are sometimes different. By suppress, I mean turning off the header on some pages. This way, I use one header for the first page and a different one for the remaining pages. But just set them all the same. It doesn't matter, really.

You may not remember "The Great DQ", which occurred several years ago. Formatting rules had changed every single year, then suddenly became very strict. Unwittingly a large number of people found their entries disqualified for minor infractions such as a font that was too small in the header, two lines of poetry single spaced, or a mis-aligned page that had a portion of the margin less than 1 inch wide. After the resulting furor died down, a strong effort was made to reform the rules, and formatting has been very loosely defined ever since then. I'll guarantee the Great DQ will never happen again. Although the fear lingers and crops up again now and then, that's something RWA will avoid at all costs. I absolutely promise.

So don't fret about it. Just be professional and present a good looking manuscript that is a pleasure for your judges to read, both visually and as a story.

At 6:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Delle!!!

I can't thank you all enough for this wonderful month of posts. I've learned so much about synopsis writing, and how to improve my writing. If I final, you're all getting a big shout out!

Margaret M


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