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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Alex. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Opening Song]
Wes: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is…
Wes: And today, I’m struggling. Trust me. Even though you can’t see my face and can only hear me declare my innermost thoughts to you, I am struggling with something. No, it doesn’t really have to do with anything that’s going on, but you just need to know that I am internally conflicted. That should be enough. It’s all the conflict you need. You know now. You can just hear my inner monologue talking about the conflict that I’m experiencing. And if I just keep throwing enough words at you, then sooner or later, you’ll understand that my internal conflict was actually not only the key to this podcast, but also instrumental in realizing the problem. And now I can say that I am no longer conflicted. Are you satisfied? I didn’t think so. But anyway, enough about me. How are you guys doing?
Oren: Well, I’m very conflicted about this because that’s my nightmare scenario when I get a story to edit, and it’s all just internal stuff and there’s no external stuff. [Laughter] And it’s like, “I don’t know what to do with this. Why are there no external problems? What am I supposed to do? How do I make this not boring?”
Wes: If you haven’t picked up on it, today we are talking about internal conflict, which everyone thinks there needs to be a ton of. And sometimes it’s great, but it is sometimes just…ugh…all the things that Oren is going to unleash on us with these experiences. [Laughter]
The trick here that I think we just need to get at is that if nothing is happening, then what are you doing? If your character’s just sitting there musing and having a conversation with themself then that doesn’t…I don’t think that counts.
Oren: It really doesn’t suggest a particularly compelling problem. Now there are certainly situations where people have very serious internal issues that have nothing to do with what’s going on outside of them. I don’t want to diminish that, and it can sound like I am sometimes. But in the case of storytelling, there has to be something to make the plot move on some level. Otherwise, it’s like, “well, I’m listening to this character tell me about their problem, but there’s nothing happening.”
And with an external problem, authors just seem to have an easier time understanding what needs to be done to move the story forward. And it’s just way harder with an internal one. I often find times where authors just don’t know what their main character’s internal conflict is. They think there is one, and they think it’s very important, but it can be really bizarre. They’ll tell me that this character’s main conflict is that they need to get over their anger with their estranged sister. And it’s like, not only do they not have a sister, estranged or otherwise, they don’t have any family in this story. And that sounds like an exaggeration, but I promise you it’s not.
Wes: And do you think that’s coming from writers feeling, I guess, compelled to craft some kind of internal conflict for the sake of creating a “complex character” and add depth to the story? And are there pressures that are supporting that?
Oren: To a certain extent, yes. And I do think they’re actually right in that a character who has a compelling internal arc of some kind is more interesting than one who doesn’t. And Chris helped me with that on my novel. In my first draft, the main character was pretty much the same throughout the entire story. And she rightly pointed out that this will be more interesting if your character has some kind of change, and it’s not just about the battles and the taxes. There’s a lot of taxes in my book.[Laughter]
Chris: To get more specific on this, when we say internal conflict, we can kind of mean two different things. I think we’re talking a lot about internal plot arcs, right? Not just the moment of a conflict. Because a conflict can mean a specific moment where there’s a struggle happening, and it can also mean the whole plot arc. So I think we’re talking a lot about the whole character arcs and things like that that are emotional in nature, but they are responsible usually for giving the story emotional depth.
And what happened with your first outline, Oren, is that you wanted your character to have emotional depth. And so you would put in your outline different things that she was feeling. What it felt like is that you had the hooks for four different character arcs, and none of them were fully developed and none of them were resolved.
Oren: So I basically was my nightmare client then at that point. I was like, “but Chris, she has all these things going on. Is that not a thing in the story.” And you were like, “Oren, no.”
Chris: And when I talked to him, he was like, “Oh, I thought I didn’t have to do a character arc.” I’m like, “I’m sorry. You do.” [Laughter] But that’s what happens when you try to create that emotional depth without having an arc to those emotions, right? It just feels like there’s pieces of arcs everywhere and there’s nothing, no coherent path.
But I see what you’re saying, Wes, about the fact that readers do get impatient if you spend so long in the character’s head that it doesn’t feel like the plot is moving forward at all. I do definitely advocate for having some in-head struggles, some conflicts in the not plot arc sense. And I think that can be really valuable and that is actually a challenge in visual media a lot of times to fully flesh out the internal conflicts where they a lot of times have to insert dialogue and have to do a lot of techniques. But at the same time, it can definitely get so bogged down that nothing is happening. And certainly anything should also be shown and not just told. Which is the other thing that happens is in lots of stories where it’s like, “this character is like this or having this problem like this.” And it’s like, “I have not seen anything related to that happening in the story. You’re just telling me that.” But you got to show it. I’m not going to believe you if you just tell me.
Oren: I’ve come to fear the term character driven, which I shouldn’t. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to describe stories. But whenever I run into either a client or even just someone who’s recommending me a story, when they say character driven, I more often than not end up with a story that doesn’t really have much of a plot because we just spend so much of the time inside the characters’ heads, dealing with various things. And it’s hard at that point. It’s hard to make that sort of thing gripping.
Chris: I do think one key thing that we had earlier podcasts about [was] developing your story ideas, where we mentioned this, and we talked about finding your passion and centering your darlings. And one thing that is really helpful that sometimes is missing in this is if you find out your darling is something that’s very internal (your character arc or a relationship or something like that), it’s really useful to learn to hook an external conflict to that so that you have something that has higher stakes. But the relationship is really important to solving that problem. You’re not going to be able to, for instance, defeat the big bad unless you can make peace with this person that you need on your side to do that, that kind of thing. And learning how to do that so that you can do both.
A good example of a novel that is definitely not perfect but has a lot of this happening, where there’s a lot of internal dwelling on things, but it also is at least related to what’s going on is Magic for Liars, where it’s clear what the writer really likes is this relationship arc between two sisters, but she makes sure that the other sister is in the same place where a murder mystery is being solved so that she can have both happening at the same time.
Oren: And the sister is either a suspect or someone who might know something. So making up with your sister also ties into the external conflict rather than like the sister just happening to be around. So that’s the kind of internal conflict I can really get behind.
Another example, one of my favorites, is The Curse of Chalion, which is just a good story in general, but it starts with our hero who is basically a broken man at the start of the story and convinced that he’s worthless and that he can’t do anything properly. And by the end, in addition to defeating the problem, he also regained some of his self-worth, and that’s just a fun thing to watch happen. I enjoy that. And that’s better because he starts off in this dark, emotional place and is able to climb out of it eventually.
But a lot of times it feels like authors put their character in a dark, emotional place, and then just write about them eventually getting out of it or not without anything else happening. And it’s hard for that to work.
Chris: Yeah, they don’t know how to create movement in the internal arc. I do think it’s possible to have a story that’s really good without those big, higher stakes external conflicts, but I think it is trickier and most storytellers don’t know how to create something that has a lot of movement to it and make it feel like it’s…and stretch it out long enough. Because if you’re writing a novel, that’s a really long time, and if you don’t have an external conflict, you got to use up all that space of internal conflict and how do you keep it going without it getting repetitive and without it being solved. Those are just tricky things to do. And it’s not impossible, but it’s a lot easier if you add an external conflict in there.
Oren: As I always say when we talk about external conflicts, it does not have to be explosions and laser swords. That’s fun. You can do that if you want, but you don’t have to. That isn’t the extent of an external conflict. You can also have a story about a family that has fallen on hard times and doesn’t want to sell their house and so to avoid selling their house, they bring in a weird parade of new roommates. That’s an external conflict, right? That could be fun.[Laughter]
Chris: That would dwell a lot on the social conflicts that are happening with these roommates and relationship conflicts.
Oren: That one guy and his parrot, I don’t know what to do with it.
Wes: If only he let go of the parrot and sell it for high price, he could feed his family.
Chris: Oh, no, Wes, no.
Wes: It’s too dark, too dark. No?
Chris: There’s a whole thing with parrots where people do not realize if they get a parrot, how long they live and how much attention they need.
Wes: Yeah, it’s quite sad. I was more going for the prideful possession, and in this, it should probably be an inanimate object that some someone is unwilling to part with. For reasons…
Chris: Somebody has a grand piano they never play. [Laughter]
Wes: Yeah, exactly. And you could sell that and feed your family or buy more land. I don’t know.
Oren: Can I say one of my favorite internal conflicts that just work super well when you’re trying to link it with an external one?
Oren: Is divided loyalties. I love…
Wes: Great one.
Oren: …divided loyalties the most. They’re so useful. They make for such meaty conflict. You can take a bite out of it. There’s so much meat to [them], and it’s just great. I liked them a lot, and it’s not just because Zuko has divided loyalties, although he does.
Oren: #Zukoforlife. But lots of characters have divided loyalties, right? It’s just fun. Just give your character a best friend on the other side or a situation where they were supposed to be on the other side, but something happened or anything like that, right? That’s “She-ra” for you at the first season, at least that’s what Adora’s situation is, and that’s very interesting. That’s one of the most compelling parts of Adora’s character.
Wes: It doesn’t work so well if the person’s loyalties seem to be really suspect. I was thinking about this too. And I don’t know why I thought of Willow and Sorsha.[Laughter]
Wes: And I’m like, “Are you actually having some conflicted…your divided loyalties with your mom because she’s clearly evil.”
Oren: Yeah, that one’s weird. That one’s on my list of bad redemption arcs because Sorsha switches sides because there’s a kind of hot guy on Team Good. Like not even really that hot. He’s kind of cute. And now suddenly she’s on Team Good, and it’s kind of unceremonious when it happens. It’s like they’re having a fight and then she’s suddenly on their team now. Literally when did that happen?
Chris: Oren. I’ll have, you know, that Val Kilmer was considered to be very sexy.
Wes: He was very sexy.
Oren: Just the way he’s playing that character, whose name is Madmartigan, and it’s not Mad Martigan, it’s one word. That’s the name his mother gave him.[Laughter]
Oren: The way he’s playing that character just feels very unattractive to me. But what do I know?[Laughter]
Chris: Well, yeah, before that she shows some unhappiness with her mother, but it’s over, “why do I have to share responsibility with this general dude? I can do it by myself?” which is not the reason we’re looking for her to decide that her mother is evil.[Laughter]
Oren: what you want is for her to be like, “Mom, do I have to burn down the village? That seems wrong.” That’s what you want. That’s the thing you want to go for.
Wes: “Mom, our castle is located in the middle of a desolate wasteland. Does this not bother anybody?”[Laughter]
Chris: This might be a good time to talk about trying to do internal conflicts from just the outside. Because we do talk a lot about internal narration, which I think is important. But I think as Wes was saying, you can go overboard with it. But we do see a lot of movies where they’re trying to show what’s happening inside a character. And it is tricky, especially if it’s complicated, right? If it’s simple, you might be able to avoid having them outright express what they’re feeling. But in a lot of these stories, we use dialogue. In films, we’ll add characters to scenes all the time and always have more than one character in a scene because otherwise they don’t know how to convey information.
Oren: Films also have background music and actors and their faces, which I think is just kind of cheating. [Laughter] Faces can…they can make their faces into all kinds of weird shapes.
Chris: Yeah, facial expressions are really important for highlighting an internal conflict in a visual media.
Wes: Well, and also physical reactions. You can write it as strong as you want, but an actor’s going to convey somebody suddenly slapping a glass off a table in anger, and the immediacy of seeing that impact will convey an emotional state faster than reading it will.
Chris: You can write a variety of facial expressions, but like there’s only so much language we have to describe the way a face looks and the way people gesture. And so after a while, it starts…it’s really hard not to get repetitive because we have only so many ways of describing body language that expresses, like frowns, they can furrow their brows or they can frown. [Laughter] And after that you have to start getting creative. We just don’t have the language to… It’s really hard.
One thing I’ve been trying to figure out is the best way to describe when somebody kind of gives them a “self hug” where they’ve got more than crossing their arms. They’re kind of wrapping their arms around themselves in kind of a defensive, protective gesture. We know these things when we see them, but trying to get them concisely into words where somebody can picture it… Again, we just don’t have the breadth of language that you [need] to represent what you could see an actor do in a film, which is true.
Wes: And even if the words are there, they’re not readily accessible. It depends on the day. I can wake up and decide like, “Wait, if somebody standing arms akimbo, do I know what that means?” That’s an actual word for you. I think standing with both hands on your hips, but I forget it every other time I think of the word.
Oren: When I read that, the first image that comes into my mind is them with their arms out at weird angles, which is not what it means, and so that actually gives me the wrong impression. When they say “arms akimbo,” I imagined their arms all twisted up for whatever reason. [Laughter]
One thing though I will say one thing that prose writers do have an advantage over a live action film is that we can describe blushing…
Chris: Yeah blushing!
Oren: …which is fake and doesn’t actually exist for the most part in the way that we think of it, but we can say it does, and everyone will believe it, and actual movies can’t really do that. It’s very hard for someone to blush to the point that you would actually notice. It looks weird. I’ve seen the actor on “Farscape.” When that guy gets excited, his face gets red and it looks bizarre. It’s like, “What is happening to your face over there, man?” It’s not like, “Oh, he’s embarrassed. His cheeks are a little red.” It’s like his face is so red that it looks like something is wrong with him. And so that’s a thing that we don’t have to deal with as prose authors. We can just say the character blushed, and everyone will imagine a cartoon blush.
Wes: I had never thought about that before. I like that.
Chris: Yeah, I was talking about that in my post on sexual romantic tension, and that blush is just an obvious sign, but you can’t use it in film. I think it’s not only that probably not that many actors can do it on command, but there’s also the makeup. It’s not usually fast. It’s not usually that noticeable. There’s just lots of reasons why it just doesn’t work in live action. But if you’ve got animation or narration, you can do blushing.
Oren: I’ve been in situations where my face felt hot because I was embarrassed or crushing on someone, and I was sure that everyone could see it because my face felt hot, but then I looked in a mirror and I looked normal. Maybe I looked like I had gone up the stairs, but it certainly wasn’t like anyone was going to look at me and be like, “Oh, Oren’s blushing. He must be having a huge crush on that lady over there.” [Laughter]
Chris: Blushing is also super useful just because it’s involuntary.
Wes: The visual version of that then would be depicting someone being flustered? I’m asking because I’m not sure. Flustered, I imagine, is your physical body moving in kind of in awkwardness because of the strong emotion that you’re feeling. It’s not necessarily negative. It’s just like you’re almost a little out of sorts. You’re just like, “Oh boy!” and maybe jittery or something like that.
Chris: Are you looking for something that can be done in film or something that’s just like…
Wes: Something that’s done in film in lieu of blushing.
Chris: I think dialogue actually. There’s a lot you can do with the way that people say things. If they pause a lot and start to ramble on nervously or, besides just the facial expression, the way that things are spoken can also really convey a lot of that nervousness and embarrassment that usually comes with blushing.
Oren: Another kind of internal conflict that I think is really easy to make work with the external plot is making up within an estranged loved one which we talked about before. And that’s like… Actually now that I say that, that’s basically just Chris’s example from Magic for Liars so my bad.[Laughter]
But I like it a lot. It provides a lot of drama. It takes what might be otherwise a fairly straightforward mystery or fight or battle or war plot and makes it just more interesting. It gives it some meat, which I have to keep repeating. It gives it meat. [Laughter[
Wes: Divided loyalties I like. I like this one more only because…I’m going to broadly apply this because I’ll speak for everybody else, but then you can disagree with me. I think it’s a little bit more relatable than divided loyalties. I don’t feel like I have strong loyalty to an organization, but I have loved ones and I have people that are kind of estranged, and so seeing that play out hits a little closer to home than, I don’t know, me feeling like I abandoned the hoard when I should have stayed. “Hoard for life!”
Oren: Yeah, no, I get ya. I agree. I mean, it’s not like I’ve never felt divided loyalties in my life, but it is certainly a less common experience than being estranged from someone.
Wes: Because deep down there’s that fear that we’re all the pets in “Homeward Bound,” and we’re not quite going to make it. [Laughter]
Oren: It’s also just really satisfying as wish fulfillment in my experience because it’s not like I’ve never made up with someone I was estranged with, but just in my experience in general, that’s not very common. If something happened to make you estranged, chances are not super high that you’re going to be able to get past that. Whereas in fiction, we can arrange it so you do because you have to laser fight with some martians and that brings you closer together. Oh yeah! [Laughter]
Chris: If you don’t mind, I’d like to get a little bit more technical talking about narrating internal conflicts inside somebody’s head, which Wes is very adamant that you should not do this all the time, but it is really important though to have the struggle in somebody’s mind as an important part of a conflict. A lot of turning points use it, especially for character arcs. But [a] clever realization turning point uses an internal conflict in somebody’s head where they have to come up with a plan or something clever. A battle of will turning point obviously is about that struggle. And again, if you’re doing something that’s visual and you don’t have internal narration, or if it’s just [that] you’re not in that character’s POV, you will use external signals, like a lot of hesitation to signal that. But if you’re writing for a POV character who has a conflict like this, you do need to narrate what happens in their head to some extent so the audience just knows what’s going on with them, and sometimes that can also be really satisfying. Again, you want to hook it to something external, right? So they have their internal problem solving, and then they hit upon the idea, and then they solve the external problem or figure out what the big bad’s weakness is.
Wes: And this should ideally all happen in a really intense dream sequence. [Laughter] Just so we’re clear, right.
If you need to figure out…Oh man, I totally forgot what Callum called it…the air something in…
Oren: The air rune?
Wes: The air rune. Yeah, in “The Dragon Prince.” “I know the air thing now or whatever.” Because he has that wild dream.
Chris: Yeah, so he does dark magic for the first time, and then he has this dream where it’s actually a really cool conflict where he sees himself, a version of himself who has embraced dark magic. And his other self tries to convince him that he should just…dark magic is the way, and he should just give into it. And the thing that I like about that partly is because there’s magic involved and he’s basically infected by dark magic when he has this dream, you can believe that him choosing to embrace it could even have some kind of magical effect on him, right? As opposed to most dream sequences where they have the dream and then they wake up and it’s like, “Did anything that happened in that dream matter?” So I did think that was a really fun sequence where he’s having a battle of will against temptation basically.
Wes: He’s having that dream sequence. It’s a battle of wills, but the rest of the people in the party see him basically unconscious but fighting something. So that makes it even better that there’s something happening to him. He’s sweaty. He’s flushed. He’s moaning. It’s definitely some kind of painful process that’s happening instead of just snoozing.
Chris: Yeah. And in similar, I can’t name the story off hand, but there are definitely other stories where you have a character that’s sick, especially if it’s magical in nature and they have some sort of dream battle, and you get the idea that this represents whether or not they will recover from the sickness. So it still has some external stake, whether they make it or not, often whether they die based on what they do in their head.
Oren: Captain Marvel does that.
Wes: Captain Marvel does do that, yeah.
Oren: And in that case, it’s a computer program rather than a dream, but potato patato. And they do the whole like “Here, let me play all of your worst failures as a child.” And then trying to get into the Air Force and all that. And then she’s like, “Aha! But what if I played you how cool I was after those failures?” [Laughter] And it’s like, “Yeah. Okay. Good job, Carol. You got this one.”
Wes: A dream-esque kind of internal conflict that I quite enjoy when I was thinking about this episode was Jonas in The Giver when he starts getting memories from the Giver, and the Giver starts giving him painful memories. I like that take because there’s some kind of magic at play that allows them to share memories, but you can conjure a memory, and some of us are better at that than others, but the intensity of that will vary. But I liked how that provided an opportunity for him to experience joy and then the pain, and then trying to process that with his role in society, knowing that they’ve taken these things out and not wanting it and then inadvertently passing memories into this kid, Gabriel, that he then learns is going to be, I guess, executed. I’m not sure what they called it in the book, but I liked the way that memory was kind of used to transfer and promote the conflict that Jonas was experiencing in that book. I thought that was a pretty cool way to kind of get him to ultimately reconcile with his own feelings, to learn that he needed to save the community and the baby Gabriel by just leaving.
Oren: And also the Giver just uses that as a good way to build the internal conflict of Jonas needing to reject this society that he’s been taught. He’s been taught, “This is good. And this is great.” And then he has to come to terms with what was lost in order to create the society. And this allows him to be like, “You know, actually murdering this baby is bad. I should escape.” And that’s just a good story. I like The Giver. I don’t like The Giving Tree. Different stories entirely it turns out. [Laughter]
Oren: Yes, quite.
Chris: So going back to the technical stuff. Let’s say you have a normal conflict where you’re at the climax or the climax of the scene or chapter or what have you, and there are external things happening, but you want that internal catalyst. For instance, your clever realization or your battle of will or what have you, I guess we call it a clever deduction normally.
I generally sort these into two different categories. One is the idea that your character just needs to come up with a plan that is objectively good. They don’t know what to do or how to solve the problem, and they need to come up with a way. And the other is when you have more like a battle of will or dilemma where they’re kind of caught between two different sides. And those kind of create two different affects where with the realization or the problem solving type conflict, first of all, it’s really important that you think ahead and give them a lot pieces of the information they need. I think about like, “Okay, I need them to get to this end point. I need them to realize this.” Okay, what are different pieces of information that will get them part way there? And then give them some of that information ahead of time. And then you have them like, “Okay, think quick.” Again to make it hard. It’s like, “Okay, I’ve tried to hit this villain three times, but the villain seems invulnerable to everything, what do I do? How can I defeat them?”
And then sometimes they can…you can remind them of all the information they had during the scene and then be like, “Oh, I know it’s this.” Or sometimes you can, in the moment during the conflict, give them a last piece of information or they’ll make an observation that gives them the last part, and then you have them put it together. And you narrate them thinking through, “Drat! There’s no way to defeat this villain.” And you still want to have, especially if this goes on too long, you still want to have external things happening where the villain will get them more and more cornered, so it gets more and more desperate as they try to think of a way to defeat the villain and then have it click together. But any of that clicking does need some foreshadowing. It does need the information to be given to them early, at least part of it.
Whereas with the battle of will or dilemma conflicts, if you’re doing it more externally, like a film, they’ll oftentimes have a couple of different characters there. They’ll have at least one other character to tempt them or represent the two different sides, so that we can externalize it a little bit. You could even have…it’s like the angel and devil on your shoulder basically is how that works. And you can have two different characters or you can have one villainous character tempting them, and you can see the character wavering and not going through it.
With those, I think it’s really handy to just, if you’re going to have it make a bunch of arguments for one side and then for the other side, to group them together and not to go back and forth. So first make your argument for one side, one decision, and then make your argument for the other. And no more than a paragraph usually on each, and then they can decide. Or some other catalyst…they can even have a realization that helps them decide. That’s another possibility. All of this can be combined together, but anyway, that’s kind of how it’s narrated and how it’s included in the scene usually with an external conflict.
Wes: One thing that I wanted to mention before we end is if you’re looking for some kind of. physical manifestation of an internal conflict, don’t…you should not do things that are discriminatory or ableist. And when you’re looking at certain stories that might consider how someone has had something happen and then therefore they’ve lost, they’re experiencing a disability. And then something happens and they get restored and they are whole again or complete or they know themself, we are definitely stepping into discriminatory and ableist territory.
We’ve seen this in shows and stories where a character is…has experienced some kind of tragedy, perhaps compartmentalized information and then therefore is now experiencing several distinct personalities that then eventually merge into one when this inner conflict is resolved and self-actualization takes place. That would be the character of Susannah Dean in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, where Odetta Holmes…her personalities, Odetta Holmes and Detta Walker, finally get merged into this one being, and then therefore she is complete and fixed and…just don’t touch it, I think is probably the safest thing to do.
Oren: Yeah, I would be very concerned about something like that if it showed up in a client work.
Wes: Exactly, you just…there’s no reason why that conflict needs to take on real mental health problems that…And the story is not contributing to positive depictions of those and more likely than not, not accurately representing them.
Oren: Basically just try to be as little like the film Split as you possibly can.[Laughter]
Wes: Yeah, I wrote that down too. I was like, “Oh no.”
Oren: All right. Well, with that cautionary note complete, I think we will have to end this podcast as internally conflicted as I am about it. [Laughter] We did run into the external conflict of these episodes can only be so long. So for those of you at home, if anything we said peaks your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
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