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Planning close to the road

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Planning, outlining, plotting, however you call it, is usually presented as something that happens at a high level, at the level of whole-story arcs, whether for characters or for plot. That's fine. I do that, and plenty of folks here have talked about how that works (or doesn't) for them. But there's a lower-level sort of planning--call it scene-level, though it's not always that. I've been fiddling with that lately and thought I'd share, mostly to elicit other perspectives and experiences. (sometimes I picture Scribes as a tribe gathering around the village fire, after we've all come back from forest and field, to share what we saw and learned there)

Here's a specific. In my WIP I have a dozen wizards in a tower. (I know; serious management problem) My lead characters enter this tower pretending to be there on Official Business. Fairly quickly, a murder is discovered by the MCs.

Now, the discovery could happen before or after the MCs meet the wizards. The MCs could meet all the wizards at once, or it could be done piecemeal. The discovery could happen in this room or that one. One or more wizards might be present at the discovery, or they might come in later.

IOW, lots of plot possibilities here. The question is, how does Author decide?

I've tried planning, but usually (as in this case) I wind up with a list of possibilities rather than an actual outline. If I choose This, then That must happen and This Other cannot happen. Reshuffle endlessly. I have not seen anything in all the planning/outlining books that give useful guidance here. This has little to do with three-act structure or journeys by heroes. It's more practical.

And that's where I might have something useful to say. Auditions. Yep. I start to lay out scenarios. A few, if I'm lucky, I dismiss at once. They don't even get past the front office. Don't call us, we'll call you. Others I spin out in my head, imagining if the murder happened, say, in the basement, how would the logistics work? Would any of the wizards wander down there by chance, for example?

Eventually, I wind up actually writing out the scene. If lucky, I hit close to the mark on the first try, and I can let the scene go to completion, let the consequences spin out, and be confident I can adjust during edit. In other cases, it just isn't working and I have to set it aside (I never toss them out) and work on another approach. Very often, practical considerations loom large.

For example, MCs find a body. What do they do? They might go straight to the wizards (one or more) to report. They might try to keep it quiet, for some reason. The path I chose was for my MCs to want to get the heck out as quick as they could, but they run right into a couple of wizards and have to keep up their pretense of Officials investigating. That feels right because it's Heroes want something and don't get it. Where does this happen? Just outside the room. Which now makes me have to think about why the wizards just happen to be there. Are my heroes being followed? Sure, why not? Wizards are a suspicious bunch. Which opens room for a confrontation. I can't have too many wizards present because it's a hallway. Not practical. Which now means we go back for some sort of report to the group.

I honestly don't see any way I could have plotted that before even beginning the book. I have to be down on the ground, actually writing, thinking about next scenes but also about scenes three chapters ago and six chapters ahead. About character relationships and behaviors. And that, too, I'm not sure I could plot. How does my lead character behave around a well-educated, powerful wizard? Why would I even be thinking about that before the scene in the hallway?

For me, it really does come down to auditions, to trying out different approaches to the same scene, letting practical considerations--everything from blocking to costume to character history--factor into the action. Any director knows, you can't really plan out that sword fight without getting your actors on stage with real sticks.

Sometimes, feeling like you don't have the connecting scenes for your story amounts to nothing more than the fact that you haven't run the auditions yet.
 

pmmg

Vala
I think my approach is similar, and no, if you are outlining to that level of detail, you may as well write it, which is why I say the rough is the outline ;)
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
I use scene-sequel format to cover this. It lets me figure out the if-this-then-that sort of elements to the story rather quickly. Here are a couple of links describing what in this context is a scene and what is a sequel.


For me, I prefer the labeling of Action Scene and Reaction Scene.

For now, here's a TL;DR gist of it. Basically, a Scene is where the POV character has a goal, they face an obstacle to that goal, and there are always 4 possible outcomes to whether they achieve that goal or not. It yes they achieve, no they don't achieve, yes-but, no-but. A pure yes is never used until the end, because a pure yes simply ends the story. The two "but" outcomes result in added consequences for the character's effort. Yes, you caught the criminal, but it's the wrong person, and now they're going to sue. No, you didn't catch the criminal, but the good news is, they also stole your car with your dog inside.

A Sequel is the character's reaction to the outcome of a Scene, which has for parts. 1- They have an emotional reaction, like OH CRAP. 2- They then think about what to do next, listing out what their choices are. 3 - They think about what the logical consequences of each choice may be. They then choose one of the choices and that becomes the next goal for the next scene. Rinse and repeat. Of note, parts 2 and 3 may be optional depending on context, because they can be obvious because of the situation. For example. At the end of a scene a villain may pull a gun on the hero. The emotional reaction is OH CRAP, and the choice is RUN. There's no need to go through what they could do and what the consequences of each are under those circumstances.

There's a great book in the Elements of Fiction series of writing books called Scene and Structure that goes in depth on how Scene and Sequel are use. These things can be used in a simply straightforward way like I described above, or they can be used in a more complex way to weave multiple plot threads together via nested scene-sequels. It sounds complicated, but it's quite simple once you understand what a scene and sequel is.


If you check out this old English Fairy tale, The Old Woman and Her Pig, it's a pretty obvious example of how a story goes through the scene-sequel structure. And it's a nice example of how a simple yes to a goal can end the story.

 
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Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
And that's where I might have something useful to say. Auditions. Yep. I start to lay out scenarios. A few, if I'm lucky, I dismiss at once. They don't even get past the front office. Don't call us, we'll call you. Others I spin out in my head, imagining if the murder happened, say, in the basement, how would the logistics work? Would any of the wizards wander down there by chance, for example?

Auditions - I like it. Maybe we could call it idea auditions, or scene auditions, or creative auditions, or something.

It doesn't get talked about a lot because there's just no substitution for good judgement. If there's four ways some part of the story could play out, which is the best one? One is classic - or is it cliche? One is straightforward - or is it too simple? One is deep - or is it too complex? One is fast-paced - or is it rushed? Which do you pick? There's no article to answer that. It needs more of a case study, and then a debate, because every situation is different, and every author's style and vision is going to affect the answer.
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
My scenes are 'mental movie clips' as seen by a POV character.

Scenes that involve a meeting between multiple people - say eight or twelve - can be a bit of a challenge...one that I have seen done not so well by 'name' authors. Too often, this devolves into 'lists of names' that are difficult for the reader to keep straight.

In my case, I set the geography first - a good sized room with a big table and lots of chairs, most of them occupied. The POV characters attention is drawn automatically to the people he recognizes - three or four he knows fairly well, and three or four others who are not much more than a name. Each of these gets a one or two sentence description - what they're wearing, who they are talking to, that sort of thing. Then a couple of the 'unknowns' start yakking at each other. They get names. Then it is down to business. Several characters - known and unknown to the MC speak, but his attention is focused on the ones he recognizes.
 

pmmg

Vala
I use scene-sequel format to cover this. It lets me figure out the if-this-then-that sort of elements to the story rather quickly. Here are a couple of links describing what in this context is a scene and what is a sequel.


For me, I prefer the labeling of Action Scene and Reaction Scene.

For now, here's a TL;DR gist of it. Basically, a Scene is where the POV character has a goal, they face an obstacle to that goal, and there are always 4 possible outcomes to whether they achieve that goal or not. It yes they achieve, no they don't achieve, yes-but, no-but. A pure yes is never used until the end, because a pure yes simply ends the story. The two "but" outcomes result in added consequences for the character's effort. Yes, you caught the criminal, but it's the wrong person, and now they're going to sue. No, you didn't catch the criminal, but the good news is, they also stole your car with your dog inside.

A Sequel is the character's reaction to the outcome of a Scene, which has for parts. 1- They have an emotional reaction, like OH CRAP. 2- They then think about what to do next, listing out what their choices are. 3 - They think about what the logical consequences of each choice may be. They then choose one of the choices and that becomes the next goal for the next scene. Rinse and repeat. Of note, parts 2 and 3 may be optional depending on context, because they can be obvious because of the situation. For example. At the end of a scene a villain may pull a gun on the hero. The emotional reaction is OH CRAP, and the choice is RUN. There's no need to go through what they could do and what the consequences of each are under those circumstances.

There's a great book in the Elements of Fiction series of writing books called Scene and Structure that goes in depth on how Scene and Sequel are use. These things can be used in a simply straightforward way like I described above, or they can be used in a more complex way to weave multiple plot threads together via nested scene-sequels. It sounds complicated, but it's quite simple once you understand what a scene and sequel is.


If you check out this old English Fairy tale, The Old Woman and Her Pig, it's a pretty obvious example of how a story goes through the scene-sequel structure. And it's a nice example of how a simple yes to a goal can end the story.


Funny, was just looking at this from Heliotrope today, asking if that model was dead.

Scene and Sequel outdated?

I dont know that I follow scene and sequel. I tend to look at them as scenes where stuff happens, and connecting scenes, cause sometimes they need to travel and such. I just go with what seems natural.
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
Funny, was just looking at this from Heliotrope today, asking if that model was dead.

Scene and Sequel outdated?

I dont know that I follow scene and sequel. I tend to look at them as scenes where stuff happens, and connecting scenes, cause sometimes they need to travel and such. I just go with what seems natural.

Story structure, whether it's three act structure or scene-sequel, etc., it's all just a way to describe the same thing, a story. They're just patterns that exist in every story, and whether we like it or not, they're there. Now, that doesn't mean we have to know it all or use it all. They're just tools to help organize and identify parts of a story. It's usually a matter of use what's useful to you and discard the rest. IMHO, saying it's outdated is like saying a filing and labeling is outdated. There maybe new types of fancy filing systems and labels, but at the end of the day, there's always a need for their very basic function of filing and labeling.

I found this chart on Reddit a bunch of years back. It lists out a bunch of different story structures. Scene-sequel isn't there, but it's just another story structure like these, and they're all just different ways of looking at the same thing. But each has its own unique way of looking at things, so to create a full picture of a story, it's IMHO useful to look at your story through the lens of at least a couple of them.

I think of each structure as looking at a car from a different angle. Each angle, you'll be able to see certain things clearer and some other things will be obscured. So if you look at things from different angles like front, back, and side, you'll get a more complete picture of how the car looks. Because from the front and back, you really don't see what the tires look like or if some are missing, and from the side, you can't really see what the bumpers look like or see if part of them is missing.


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Have you ever seen a bad Michael Bay movie? They tend to feel light on character, feel very empty, and nonsensical, because they spend all their time on scenes (action scenes) and next to no time on sequels (reaction scenes). Sequels are where most of the character development happens. It's also where things are explained and put into context. Now, I'm not saying you have to use scene-sequel overtly, but regardless, you'll be using it in some form, because the things it does are necessary to the function of a story. The only differences is someone gave it a label and defined it formally in a certain way.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
This is going to be of no help whatsoever to most of you.

I've never really thought about how I write scenes or even structure my stories. That might be because I've never really studied literature or been taught to write fiction.

Given that I don't do any form of outlining because of my dyslexia it follows that I don't plot out my scenes in any detail before I write them. Yet I do think the story through in my head before I begin to write. I know roughly what will happen, and what the key points in the story are going to be. And then I start to write, and it's like I'm doing it instinctively; the story, the scenes, they just happen. There's no concept of auditioning a scene, or trying several variations. I somehow know how the characters will react to others, what they'll say and do. Maybe it's because so much of what I write is based on things I've seen and/or done, so the sequence of events and the overarching details of setting for the events are somehow there already. As an example, in a fight scene at an inn, I know roughly what the room looks like, who is where in there and what happens a bit later. I just write and it happens on paper. More than that, because I'm dyslexic, what goes down on that first pass is what goes to my editor. I don't do re-writes, it all seems to work from the start.

In some respects this frightens me a bit, because what happens the day this doesn't work? And then again it doesn't scare me, because I don't write for a living and I can always come back to the story a bit later.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
There's more to it than just the scene itself. To continue with my example, I begin with an even dozen wizards in this tower. They're basically looting the place for their overlord. But there's also a killer loose among them. My heroes stumble into the middle of it. That was all there in the planning.

But, of those wizards, do they all get killed during the novel or do some survive? If so, how many? Which ones, and why just those ones? I planned that too, with the full knowledge that the list would shift around as needed. Some win, some lose, some are born to sing the blues.

Once we get down the scene described above, though, I have to make a call. Which one stumbles onto our heroes and the discovery of the first bodies? This matters, and the encounter could play out in a variety of ways, provided the end result is that our heroes must remain. They have to, to solve the case. This sort of implies that the encounter, while beginning roughly, must end with some sort of amicable agreement. This in turn includes or excludes certain wizards based on what sort of characteristics I envision for each. So, planning conditions scene, but scene is going to condition further planning.

It's that interplay that fascinates me. It can and probably should be planned to some degree (even to the Swedish Degree <g>), yet it must also be left open. Twists and turns happen in the very act of describing the room, or writing a bit of dialog. Is it just the one wizard or is there a second or a third present?
 

Mad Swede

Maester
Yes, but to take your example, at some point you as the author will put your metaphorical foot down and decide what happens in detail. It seems to me that you leave things as open as you can for as long as you can whilst you "suck on the candy" as we say in Swedish. And then you choose how it all plays out. I don't do any of that, at least not consciously. I don't even think it through in that detail, and I can't even picture myself doing so. It seems odd and counter-intuitive. I just write and it seems to happen. But maybe I'm the odd one?
 

Penpilot

Staff
Article Team
Once we get down the scene described above, though, I have to make a call. Which one stumbles onto our heroes and the discovery of the first bodies? This matters, and the encounter could play out in a variety of ways, provided the end result is that our heroes must remain. They have to, to solve the case. This sort of implies that the encounter, while beginning roughly, must end with some sort of amicable agreement. This in turn includes or excludes certain wizards based on what sort of characteristics I envision for each. So, planning conditions scene, but scene is going to condition further planning.

Broad rule of thumb, for me, when making choices is to try and choose the one that causes the most chaos or makes the most trouble for the main characters. For me, the most trouble would be for the MCs to discover the bodies BUT encounter the wizard(s) who are the most unreasonable and hotheaded and who think they're the killers. To make things even worse, maybe the MCs injure/kill one of the wizards in the misunderstanding. This can result in the MCs being on the run from the tower of wizards while trying to solve a murder and prove their own innocence. OR, it can result in the MCs being prisoners while trying to prove their innocence to the wizards, who don't trust them in the least, and who may even be planning on executing them. This all creates a layer of tension that wouldn't be there if the wizards and MCs meet, trust each other, and get along swell.

Now, I'm not saying THIS is how it should go, but depending on the story you want to tell, putting your characters into tight spots whenever you can without compromising your vision is usually a good thing. Because it's in these tights spots where you get to show off your MCs skills, their personalities, and just exactly who they are. Not to mention, you can make them do some pretty cool things to get out of said tight spots. Maybe one of them is a talented ventriloquist and they throw their voice and distract the wizards so they can escape. Maybe one of MCs can fart a will and rips one, and while the wizards are gagging, the MCs make a run for it. OK, enough with the silly.

Any ways, that's my approach.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
About the sample scene: With a dozen wizards, I would want to make sure that some are supportive, and some are hostile, and that the whole group has a good mix of attitudes to help each one stand out. I would take it as a chance to show off my character building, so I'd think of them as a frat house and layout their internal attitudes towards each other. Then I'd look at that for ideas on what to do with the scene.....
 

ThinkerX

Myth Weaver
Eleven wizards who arrived to loot the tower on behalf of an overlord...

Okay...

You need a 'boss wizard' - the leader of the group, the one the others at least theoretically acknowledge as being in charge.

You need the 'overlords' agent' - the personal wizard of the overlord in question. Could be the same as the 'boss wizard.' If separate, though, then this guy's agenda will likely differ from that of the boss wizard.

Then there is the 'dead wizard's friend' - or maybe 'agent.' (This assumes the former owner of the tower is, in fact dead). This wizard was the friend or agent of the old tower master. Regarded as a 'guide' by the other wizards. Viewed with suspicion by either the boss wizard or the overlord's agent, who think he's holding secrets.

The 'dissident wizard' - the wizard who was dragged into this expedition because the boss wizard and/or the overlord's agent didn't think he could be trusted on his own back in town. Might be a fairly decent character, as wizards go.

The 'ambitious apprentice' - young, eager to please, hot headed, likely to cause trouble. This would be the one who starts the fight.

The 'fugitive wizard' - this fellow did something very bad somewhere else - likely something that involved multiple dead bodies. He thinks he's covered his tracks...but is concerned there might be evidence of his misdeed here, or that the MC's might connect him with his crime. The other wizards are unaware of his crime.

The 'foreign wizard' - a sorcerer from a faraway land, lousy grasp of the language.

The 'scholar' or 'know it all' - the wizard who is actually more interested in the magic than the scheming. Treated as a sort of walking encyclopedia.

The 'jack of trades' - the minor wizard who has a wide range of other talents from construction to animal handling to sailing a ship. Treated as a sort of servant.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
OK, if we're using your sample scene.

When writing I would already have known that I needed that scene, so in writing the run-up to it I would have been making sure I'd answered a few questions (and this comes fairly naturally to me given my past career). So my thoughts go like this when I'm writing:

Our heroes are going to pay a visit to this tower to try to find something, and the idea is to make it look like official business which gives them the right to ask questions and search the place. That needs some document, which they can either fake, or bribe or persuade someone to write for them. Forgery or bribery costs money, so they'd need that. Persuasion comes with another price. Details don't matter right now, but the choice depends on what happens further down the line. I as the author choose the cash option, and it's bribery our heroes use. Its not cheap, and its a risk because the official might open his mouth later on. (which of course leads on to a later part of the story...)

So they get to the tower, and get inside. They start to search because they can't find anyone. But the paper is there as a back-up if they meet someone. No luck so far, but there are indiciations that someone else is or has searched the place. And then they get to a room and find a body. This could be a problem, but it could also give them a bit of extra muscle if its played right. Find out what killed him, if they can, then see if they can work out what happened in the room. There's a sound from the hall outside and they meet some wizards.

Now our heroes don't know how many wizards there are in total, but unless some of the wizards they've just met can read minds or detect forgeries our heroes are safe for the moment. So they reckon they have the upper hand, show the wizards the papers and politely but firmly start to ask a few questions. The wizards are a bit surprised, but as they don't really want anyone to know they're looting the place on behalf of their overlord they play along, hoping to cover up their own doings. So some form of dialogue follows. Because our heroes have to get out alive, the discussion has to end up with them saying they need to report back, and that they'll need to come back to recover the body. The wizards have to accept this, because doing anything else is going to reveal what they're up to - so when they do finish looting the place they also have to leave the body behind.

Our heroes eventually get out, without the thing they wanted. They know there's something else going on, but don't have the manpowerr to deal with it. The wizards are suspicious but can't prove anything. So a motive for a future encounter in the story is now set up - and even more so if it turns out they were lookig for the same thing and neither group found it.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
I'm going down a middle path on that. There will be varying degrees of trust and mistrust. After all, we have several different kinds of people among these wizards; they're not likely to all behave the same way, especially since there are pre-existing tensions among them. Plus there's a killer loose and it might very well be one of them.

One sort of tension is open conflict. But another sort is constantly tipping scales that leave the heroes in varying degrees of peril through the course of the story. And since there's a big monster to fight at the end, I'm going to need at least a few wizards to fight alongside us. Acrobatics and juggling only carries so far. <g>

But the helpful suggestions do cast another angle on the same question. That there's a leap between the higher-level planning (what Penpilot sketched is novel-level) and the blocking and details of the scene itself. There's planning that happens there, where one casts one's eye along the length of visible road, somewhere between steering the car and consulting the map. The advice columns don't address it, and I find that curious. I'm fine with following what I laughingly call my own methods, but I still find that lack odd, given that advice writers are pretty much addicted to giving advice. You'd think someone would have latched onto this.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
While I differ with ThinkerX on specifics, I do agree about differing roles.

The only difference worth mentioning is the notion of a head wizard, for a couple of reasons. One, the Middle Ages was not so obsessed with hierarchy as more modern societies are, and this is a place where I can make a small point. More story-relevant, the Viscount Galeazzo is a devious SOB and is quite content to toss all the dogs into the same pit. He'll also have a personal agent or two, just to make sure he gets reliable reports about who is doing what. This Tower holds rare treasures, if reports be true, so there's plenty of opportunity for greedy wizards to line their own pockets and who's to know.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
@MadSwede, thanks for those comments. That's pretty close to the planning I'd done, except I tend to write stuff out longhand in a notebook. It usually does a better job thinking than my brain does. If the thoughts seem durable, I type them into a Notes section in Scriviner (separate from the Draft of actual writing). In theory it's there for reference. In practice, by that time the ideas are embedded in me and I just go ahead and write the scene and never look at the Notes. (and he says he has a method. Hah! ... *shrugs*)

Anyway, it's clearer to me now that this overlooked (I claim) aspect of planning has more to do with the consequences of a scene than with the scene itself or the planning that goes into it. It's because of both the planning (the elements you laid out) and the on-the-fly writing that gets done, that has implications for later in the story, including stuff that I thought I had planned. Stuff has to shift because of it. Or the stuff stays and the scene gets revised. Now there's an interesting balancing. How does an author decide?

Maybe this is uknowable stuff. Like asking the artist why they mixed just those colors in just that way for these three brush strokes. They never have a good answer (I know, I've asked). I'm not really trying to solve any writerly problem here, just curious about process.

Very often, these threads feel like a pleasant pub conversation. We don't solve anything, but we have a good time and feel better for it.
 
I've had readers ask me the "why" of scenes, and more often than not, I reverse engineer the why, LMAO. "Why? Because that's where the story took me," is not the best answer. Reverse engineering yields answers of a much more intellectually satisfying nature. There were probably a dozen points in Eve of Snows where I wrote something later and wondered whether it fit, does it need foreshadowed, or whatever, and when I went back, I found I'd written the hooks for those ideas/events already without knowing what I was doing, and they tended to be more beautiful than whatever idiotic notion I was considering.

I do sort of run auditions through my brain, but in general, the winner is almost always just the one that makes the most sense or just feels right. It's when I let my conscious brain take me beyond my gut and beyond what makes the most sense that I tend to run into trouble.
 

Mad Swede

Maester
I'm not sure I could even reverse engineer the process as a way of explaining how I write. That "plan" I wrote around Skip's little scene was probably the first time I've ever tried to write down what it is I do when I'm setting up to start writing. And even then there's things I know are missing from that explanation.

When I write, the story just seems to flow even though I don't always write the scenes in order. I don't plan in detail, I don't outline or sketch. I just write. The hooks go in without me really giving them much thought, the characters seem to run around the pages without me giving them much steer. The details just develop, fitting in without me making much effort. And it all seems to work on that first pass, I never feel the need for a re-write.

I know I'm dyslexic, but when I'm writing it all just happens and it feels so good, so relaxing. Maybe it's because I don't write for a living, but there's no pressure. Just that sense of joy when it all flows onto the page.

And yes, I'm well aware how much those writers who struggle with outlines and re-writes will envy and in some cases hate me for it. Sorry guys, but I can't explain my process any better than that.
 
As an old English Lit major, reverse engineering is kind of second nature. Even if it's BS, it can get an A+, heh heh.
I'm not sure I could even reverse engineer the process as a way of explaining how I write. That "plan" I wrote around Skip's little scene was probably the first time I've ever tried to write down what it is I do when I'm setting up to start writing. And even then there's things I know are missing from that explanation.

When I write, the story just seems to flow even though I don't always write the scenes in order. I don't plan in detail, I don't outline or sketch. I just write. The hooks go in without me really giving them much thought, the characters seem to run around the pages without me giving them much steer. The details just develop, fitting in without me making much effort. And it all seems to work on that first pass, I never feel the need for a re-write.

I know I'm dyslexic, but when I'm writing it all just happens and it feels so good, so relaxing. Maybe it's because I don't write for a living, but there's no pressure. Just that sense of joy when it all flows onto the page.

And yes, I'm well aware how much those writers who struggle with outlines and re-writes will envy and in some cases hate me for it. Sorry guys, but I can't explain my process any better than that.
 
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