1. Hubardo
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    Hubardo Contributing Member Contributor

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    Use of dreams to advance narrative

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Hubardo, Aug 23, 2015.

    Although I had a hunch that this has been discussed at length I couldn't find anything when using the advanced search function. So, this is a thread about using dreams to advance the narrative.

    I've seen dreams be used as pretty straightforward guides of symbolism driving character motivation. MC goes to sleep, you're shown the dream, they wake up and feel all the feels about the dream and think different thoughts, ask some questions, head in a somewhat new life direction. Game Of Thrones and the three eyed crow, for example.

    Murakami uses dreams sometimes in a way that may be symbolic or functional but otherwise seem random -- as is his style. I can imagine him using dreams to connect people in that magical realism kind of way, like they're dreaming of interacting although they haven't met. That's a sort of genre specific thing, I think. Hints at or is supernatural.

    I had this idea a few minutes ago (thus searching for a thread on this) of having an MC dream of this shaman dude from Columbia speaking to him at length to change his ways. The MC becomes obsessed and does some research and finds out where the guy is from, goes to the village where he suspects the guy lives, and finds that the guy does not exist. In that sense the dream can be used functionally for both character and plot development, but keep the supernatural part ambiguous. The rationalist reader can conclude that the MC constructed the guy out of bits of exposure to cultural information elsewhere. The supernaturalist reader can conclude that the shaman is a dead ancestor of that tribe. Someone wrote a really great short in the workshop that made it so that you couldn't tell if somebody was really charming or if they were actually casting spells on people. I thought that was genius.

    What do you think about using dreams for plot (and character) development? (Sorry I can't post to both subforums)
     
  2. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This is one of my pet hates. I find it lazy writing (sorry) and it immediately puts me off a book. Dreams seem to be used as a device to tell, not show, a character's thoughts or a change within them.

    Similarly when they act as a premonition for things to come... yawn.

    In your situation, why does your character need to dream about the shaman dude? If it's just a way to get your character to realise he needs to change his ways, my advice is to show that through action, not someone telling him in a dream. If it's to get him to the village, there are a million other ways. An anonymous letter?

    Basically, why do you think a dream is the best way to do this?
     
  3. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I tend not to like dream sequences. They pull me away from the action of the story. If they're very well done, I'll read them and enjoy them, but I find myself skipping over them as well, and just picking up where the dream ends.
     
  4. Hubardo
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    Hubardo Contributing Member Contributor

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    Kind of hard to explain this because it's complicated. The MC guy (one of at least two now) works in counterterrorism in a division dedicated to tracking suspected ecoterrorists. The genre is basically climate fiction, themed around the question of what in our present day would be enough to prevent apocalyptic global scenarios in the next 1-2 centuries. There is a group called Deep Green Resistance in real life who lay out a very extensive plan on how to use a variety of means such as sabotage to target fossil fuel infrastructure and other harmfully extractive industry sites (see here if interested in reading their little plan). The other MC is the Intel guy's daughter, who is an informant working within this ecoterrorist group. Both MCs believe that the ecoterrorists are basically just batshit crazy because the ecoterrorists' overall goal is to "dismantle industrial civilization" (also a true story). I've recently written a scene where the Intel guy is tortured by unknown people within his division. They waterboard him in sea water and each time he comes out of a drowning experience they name a country or region that will no longer exist because of the US Government's refusal to act more seriously. After this he does not change his mind but as a result of the torture he begins to have nightmares every night. Soon, this person appears in the nightmares as a soothing figure. It turns out to be a member of the Kogi tribe of Columbia. The Kogi believe they are the Elder Brothers of the world, and that we (as part of industrial civilization) are the Younger Brothers. The Elder Brothers exist to protect Mother Earth (another true story, from their POV), and in recent decades they have come out of isolation to spread their message to the industrial world that we have to stop our use of fossil fuels and mining. Whether the shaman dude is a shaman or just a dude from the Kogi tribe, I thought it would be cool for him to be the soothing figure that's coming to tend the guy's mental wounds while also smooth-talking environmentalism in his spiritual way. Then, the Intel dude becomes obsessed with needing to know who the fuck the guy is, researches stuff and finds he's Kogi. In this process he comes to the same conclusion as the ecoterrorists, and from there the story changes a great deal. He stops preventing the acts of sabotage; he makes sure that these acts go through to their full extent. That's the idea right now, and I'm open to it all being impossible to work out, or just generally stupid. Have only written a handful of scenes thus far, although in my head I have been trying to figure out a way to integrate a story out of the link embedded above (on DGR's decisive ecological warfare document).

    The nightmares would be a realistic PTSD symptom post-torture, but I agree that the Kogi dude would come off as telling. I guess sometimes I like some telling but yeah maybe it's not the right way to go.

    A dream may not be the best way to do this.
     
  5. Hubardo
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    Hubardo Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh, and the idea about the Kogi guy not really existing was supposed to be a way for me to combat the urge to romanticize the "noble savage." If the Kogi guy really is transmitting messages via dreams then he becomes magical. I sometimes like to think that tribal peoples are magical but I also think it's a bit of a worn out and somewhat offensive trope. At the same time, the Kogi genuinely do believe they are sworn protectors of mother earth and that we are young, reckless idiots who are threatening her and our and their survival. This makes the Kogi a great element to include because their vision actually resembles that of the ecoterrorists, probably minus the militancy.
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    I think it can work. If the dream sequences have a purpose you can use them and it sounds like they do. You are describing magical realism in which case a dream is a reasonable means of inserting the magical component.
     
  7. Hubardo
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    Hubardo Contributing Member Contributor

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    In this case I don't think it is magical realism. It would be if the Kogi dude was actually communicating with the MC, but the MC will discover the Kogi dude doesn't exist. Instead, the Kogi dude may be interpreted as a mental construction based on cultural information he intercepted elsewhere (ie, college classes earlier in life, Wikipedia articles, documentaries, other videos or reading he consumed but has since forgotten about). Or is that too far a stretch? I wanted to avoid doing magical realism with this one... but I guess I could warm up to the idea.
     
  8. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    What is wrong with using dreams? I use one to make a really evil character not look so evil (actually been busting my hiney to make them not seem to far one way or the other, despite their inherent nature as they struggle to adapt). As well for another who feels that what he wants to follow through with seems utterly impossible to task. And gets some kind of cryptic advice on how to go about it, while basically saying you are screwed.

    So I think it comes down to personal bias of the observer. Damn dirty bigots...err...hippies. :D
     
  9. Hubardo
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    Hubardo Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think anyone opposes it outright, but it can come off as gimmicky. The places I've seen it used in Murakami I liked it, and in the Game of Thrones TV series I've liked it. That's why I mentioned those ones. Also, I liked it in Tad Williams' MST books... and Otherland. And... Ender's Game... okay now I'm wondering if people have any examples of books in which they didn't like the use of dreams! Knowing what not to do, with examples, might help.
     
  10. Mckk
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    The first draft of my very first (yet to be finished) novel had dream sequences. They were also the moments where I engaged in a lot of stealth evangelism (a term my friend coined lol).

    Anyway... in my case, it was a very bad idea. It involved a talking tree that I originally wanted to name "The Creaking"... :nosleep:(and I couldn't stop laughing every time I pictured the ominous dream scene with the tree introducing itself as The Creaking)
     
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  11. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Finally a point of origin. Now how about pose a few samples from either side so us Dunces can see what you are trying to achieve. Cause I have not actually been exposed to dream sequences in books. Maybe a brief outline please? I not so good with out evidence to go off of. :p
     
  12. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    My thoughts on what's wrong with dreams are above. Why would you use a dream to show that your evil character isn't so evil? Actually, HOW does a dream achieve that? Sometimes I do bad things in my dreams that I would never do in real life and vice versa, it doesn't reveal anything about my moral compass. And why would a dream, which comes from our sub-conscious (unless there is magic at play, in which case, why use a boring old dream?) give us cryptic advice on an impossible task? I think all that could be told in a much better, show-ing way, in non-dream sequences.

    But then I definitely am biased because I really, really hate dreams in books :p
     
  13. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    Well in that particular case was more a musing that they had read from a book of fairy tales. The character is still learning and adapting to the new environment that they are in. Which is a big step from basically isolation and limited resources.

    The other is because they keep the dog tags from enemy officers they have killed, along with fallen officers on their side. Kind of plays into the asking the 'dead for help' angle. And there is where the cryptic aspect comes in. More of a chips are down what the hell do I do now aspect, if you will.

    What are we going to say flash backs are pertaining to a mild form of PTSD, or of being haunted by their past? Do those count in the dream aspect as well? After all in some cases from mild to severe they can be seen as such and very hard to snap out of them despite the one experiencing being awake and unaware of what is going on outside of the state of consciousness. If it falls under the definition then by your logic it is in fact a dream state. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong, in fact I welcome it. Just trying to understand your position. :D
     
  14. Hubardo
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    Hubardo Contributing Member Contributor

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    Although I agree @Tenderiser that dreams can be poorly done, I don't think they're categorically a form of telling and therefore bad storytelling. People have dreams, and so characters have dreams. It is realistic to show dreams. It is fun to write them, and sometimes it is fun to read them. I have seen some show vs tell threads on the forum that have made me realize that we can take the "never ever tell, only show" thing too far. Some telling, to me, is okay. Plus, dreams could be a form of showing. You can show someone is anxious through dreams. Perhaps you would prefer to show by writing them biting fingernails, tapping their feet, having a character say "you seem really anxious today." I'm not going to write off an author who shows anxiety through dreams. Anxiety is just one example. Dreams could, in theory, if done well, show a great deal. Not only can they reveal internal states, but they can show memories. Someone can wake up from an important life event they may not have thought about in years. Now, the author can show the relevance of the memory. I could make up lots of situations where dreams could show important stuff and drive the plot forward. Again, I think it can be gimmicky and kind of corny. In the case of using dreams for one person to communicate to another, I would be ambivalent about reading it in some books.

    Oh, another cool show where dreams played a big part. Battlestar Galactica. Dreams were used to guide important decisions made by a leader, which altered the course of the entire show. A little corny but I loved the characters and story leading up so I was okay with it. If the dream were how I met that character I may have rolled my eyes.
     
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  15. GuardianWynn
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    Well, that seems a bit harsh. I mean surely there is a proper way to use the tool. Just as there is an improper way? lol.

    Yeah, I can see your point on premissions. Yet I did a dream once. Just once. I am curious on how you would argue against it.

    The concept was a young woman with an inner force in her mind. Yes she had two seperate minds in her body. In the dream she sees that force as herself hurting people. Which is her deepest fear that she will lose control and hurt people. It isn't premision. It is just a reflection of her fears. Fears she hides in plain everyday life. So opening on a plain day, a glipse of her evil side, a dream reflecting her fears on it then back to normal hiding it. The dream is a place she can reflect her feelins so much stronger than just narration while she is alone. Right?

    Staying on topic and to anwser the question. I think dreams are a fine tool in the same way a power saw is a fine tool. For moments you want to overdo the style or show a emotion in a unique way. Yeah it works. But thinking it is an all purpose tool and taking it into the kitchen is well going to produce exactly the result you think it will in my opinion. lol
     
  16. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    Dreams are representative of the subconscious, they are great for extracting narrative advances through all the traditional "guilt" aspects. If you are going to go into major out of the way changes from "normal behavior" like an international excursion, normal people do not just go from A to B in the course of a night's dream. Dreams are better than internal monologues to show internal strife, but do them right and the effects are profound.
     
  17. Sifunkle
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    I like a well-done dream sequence, but they do get overused as cheap/convenient plot devices that needs no explanation because they're inherently abstract. Realistically, when most people dream, upon waking they acknowledge that it's just their subconscious messing around. So to me the main issue is why a character would decide that a dream is worth attributing meaning to.

    The two obvious (to me) reasons would be having the same dream repeatedly (Bran Stark-style), or if a dream seemed remarkably realistic upon conscious retrospection. I'd find the latter less believable in a story, because in my experience dreams never are realistic in hindsight. (Sidenote: I believe a lot of people don't experience language in dreams - as in, they might dream of meaningful communication, but not in actual words/writing. Not sure if that influences your shaman thing, and grain of salt as it's probably not 100% correct.)

    I'm a big fan of symbolism, so I appreciate more figurative, less literal dreams. Subtle symbolism (--> conscious detective work) preferable to heavy-handedness. Maybe a bit pseudosciencey, but I believe a current hypothesis is that dreams are a process of testing connections between short-term memories in order to configure long-term memories. This is why I could (half-) believe a personal revelation from a symbolic dream: the various elements could be from recent real-world observations, and the dot-connecting into long-term memories could serve as the epiphany. For this reason, I like your decision to make the shaman non-extant - I'd assume he's a pastiche of the MC's experiences (but keeping the ambiguity you mentioned definitely improves your story's value IMO). On that note, it would seem odd to insert entirely novel information/ideas into a dream (unless that's the point of the story, a la Inception, but then you'd need to explain it).

    (Not actually a dream, but) an example of the kind of abstract/symbolic sequence I'd find intriguing is the video in Ringu/The Ring. Just my preference though.

    Good luck :)
     
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  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, that's not an easy one. In life, dreams do affect us, don't they? However, as written in books they often are a bit too drifty to be interesting. Or too lengthy. If we know it's a dream, we're not going to want to read too much of it. And if we think it's really happening, then find out later that it's all been a dream? Grrrr.... that can really backfire.

    I have one dream sequence in my story, and I've tried to make it as immediate and understandable as possible. It's important because it's a clue to the character's state of mind, which she has been denying thus far in the story. So far the betas haven't complained, so I'm keeping it in, but it does make me a little bit nervous!

    I make reference to another dream as well, but it takes up only a sentence, so that's not really a problem. It's the overall content of that dream which is important, and I make it clear in the context of that scene that the recurring dream is troubling that character.

    I don't know. I find my attention wanders during a too-long dream sequence in a story, especially if it's very vague. You know the kind : he was wandering inside some kind of shell that was all pink and purple and then it changed to silver and disappeared and he was on top of a skyscraper looking down at a city that was on fire and then he was swimming in somebody's backyard pool and wondering whether he'd left his slippers on the stairway or in the bedroom...

    This is often what real dreams are like, but reading them in 'real time' can be a dull experience. I know I often shy away from people who want to tell me their dreams, unless they are able to distill the point of the dream very quickly.

    Dreams CAN be revelatory, though. They come from your subconscious, and can help you figure out stuff you've been avoiding. Often when you dream of people you know, they will behave in ways that might upset you a bit. That behaviour from them, or the possibility of it, is lurking somewhere in your mind, though. Good idea to pay attention to the feelings your dream stirs up.

    So ...maybe use dreams in your stories, but use them very sparingly, for a specific character-building purpose only, and try to make the dream sequences as brief as possible? Does that sound like a sensible plan?
     
  19. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Flashbacks are another of my pet hates. Can you imagine how much I hated it when 50 Shades of Grey used flashbacks in a dream? :D I find them another lazy way of showing character back-story.

    If the PTSD is a key part of the plot then I would rather see how the flashbacks are affecting the character (the way other characters react, his feelings after, etc) than having a blow-by-blow account of what happened sometime in the past. Especially if s/he's going to have repeated flashbacks throughout the book. IMO a book should always be moving forward, not dipping back into the past all the time.

    I'm not saying my position is fair or correct, by the way, I'm aware my hatred of dream sequences isn't entirely rational and they CAN be well done. But 95% of the time I find them a lazy device and the other 5%, I still think there's a better way of doing it.
     
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  20. DueNorth
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    DueNorth Active Member

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    Coming from the psychotherapy field (retired after many years of full-time practice) I might have a bit of a different take on dreams than many writers/readers. Rather classically trained in the '70's in a psychoanalytic tradition that taught us the Freudian belief that "dreams are a window into the unconscious," I, for many years, in my own psychotherapy and that of my clients would spend quite a bit of time in dream analysis. (If only had that time and money back.) Which, since I love metaphor, I will admit I did find to hold some fascination for me, but the possibilities were endless, and of course HER interpretations always had something to do with my mother. Now, fast forward to the current neuroscience and much of what was taught when I was trained has been debunked and although there continue to be psychoanalysts of both the Freudian and Jungian traditions, in general in Mental Health circles, the idea of dream analysis is old hat and very little credence is given to it. Soooo, in my way of thinking, to use it as a vehicle in a modern story is a bit akin to using a vehicle like that your character went to a fortune teller and the fortune teller told him/her, or opened a fortune cookie and... Now,exceptions to this would be, and I think all of us know this just from our own lives, that all of us tend to dream about things that are or have been traumatic, things we are worried about, or traumatic events in our lives, a death of a loved one, for example. So, recurrent nightmares are a frequent symptom of PTSD (as has been mentioned above) and would be typical of someone suffering from that. Where dream sequences do not work--and as a writer I also dislike, and think are "lazy," as someone else has said, is when they are used to advance the plot, or that someone has a premonition in a dream--that stuff just does not happen in real life--unless you are one of those who believes in psychics (I don't). Current neuroscience is that, for the most part dreams are rather random firing of neurons, necessary for good rest and the brain's organization and reorganization of learning from the day, but not predictive or as Freud had thought (and I once took as Gospel) "a window into the unconscious."

    So, to go back to the original question, to have your character dream that a shaman speaks to him through a dream, well, if you believe in shamans chances are you don't believe in neuroscience. :)

    Now daydreams, those as we know as writers are an entirely different matter: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life." (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
     
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  21. DueNorth
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    DueNorth Active Member

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    BTW, just to clarify, I am in favor of daydreams, even getting lost in them!
     
  22. Cave Troll
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    Cave Troll Bite the bullet, do your own thing. Contributor

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    I see what mean, and understand where you're coming from. I respect your position. Flashbacks in dreams, sounds kind of dumb. I would agree that it would be hard to read a book from end to end full of flashbacks. Suppose I am more middle of the road. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Actually gave me a fresh look at how to approach things on the subject. :D
     
  23. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    What are we considering narrative advancement, exactly? I mean, my main character suffers from recurring nightmares related to PTSD. With the plans I have right now, there might be three dream sequences, and all of them will be different. Those differences are going to be tied to her character development. If we consider character development to be advancing the narrative, I think it can work quite well. If we're talking about information that is needed for the main plot revealed through dreams, that's a much trickier proposition to me. It can come off as rather cheap. Really, it all comes down to execution.
     
  24. DueNorth
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    My point regarding using dreams is to be true to the current science of understanding about dreams. People with PTSD do have recurring dreams, generally a replay of some aspect of the traumatic event, or representation of it. However, by definition recurring dreams do not differ (at least not much); as they are a recurrence of the same dream. Perhaps your character
    discusses her dream with her therapist (only partially kidding--could happen) and working thru her trauma will alter the dreams and enhance her character development.

    It's not like it can't be done--just tricky--and with PTSD you do have more leeway. Good luck.
     
  25. X Equestris
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    X Equestris Contributing Member Contributor

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    Since it's a medieval fantasy, there aren't really therapists per se, though there's a friend of hers who has filled much the same role in a nonprofessional capacity. The changes to the dreams themselves are pretty minor, though noticeable, and they only occur after major shifts that involve working dealing with her trauma.
     

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