Sometimes you can just tell that the story you’re reading has come to a screeching halt, but what does that actually mean? How can you tell when a story isn’t moving, or is moving too fast, and why does it matter? That’s what we’re talking about this week. We discuss rising tension, paragraph length, and what to do when your hero is attacked by a tiger on an alien world. No word yet on whether the tiger is also an alien.
Generously transcribed by Ursula. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is Oren and Wes. Now, I know we’re planning a podcast on movement and pacing, but I think I just like to talk about tea parties, and we can just keep going on and on talking about tea parties and kind of leave listeners to wonder when we might actually get to movement and pacing. That’ll be fun, right?
Oren: Yeah. I mean, it sounds great. I’ve been told that trying to make stories have a plot is bad and prescriptivist, so that seems fine. Just, you know, whatever.
Wes: It’s also good to show us relaxing and talking about something that’s not the podcast because it’s only realistic that we’re depicting downtime. [everybody laughing] ‘Cause that’s what happens in real life.
Chris (mimicking angry author): You can’t take away my artistic freedom![continues in normal voice] Okay. So if we were to start talking about tea parties and keep going on a tangent – would that be primarily a problem with movement, or pacing?
Oren: I don’t know, but I do know that when I make these absurd hypotheticals, I’ve learned to change what they’re about. Because with the Mythcreants audience, if I say, “And then the story becomes an endless tea party”, everyone will be like, “Ooh, that sounds really cool.” And I’m like, “No, it’s not, it would be very boring.” But I know it sounds cool to you. So instead I say things like, “And then the story became an endless slog of fighting faceless minions.” And that they get, they get why that’s boring.
Chris: When we’re giving advice, we do encounter the subversion problem, where if you mention something that’s unusual, even if it would actually be a really bad idea in the story, if it sounds fresh and subversive, it has enough novelty that a listener, as we’re talking about it, would be like, “Oh, that would be really cool.”
It’s like, okay, it would be cool for the first 30 seconds, maybe five minutes. It wouldn’t actually be cool for the full length of the story. It just sounds that way because we’re being subversive and doing something different.
Oren: Yeah. I call this the writing meme effect, where there’s a writing meme where someone has this story idea, and it has like a million likes and all these shares, but no one has written that story. It’s because it wouldn’t actually work. I promise you, if the idea was that popular and people would actually read it, everyone would be writing that story.
Anyway, moving on from my grumps…
Chris: Now that we’ve gone on a tangent…
Oren: Do tangents affect pacing, Chris? I wanna know.
Chris: So, movement and pacing have a lot of overlap, but they’re technically different.
Chris: And I know it’s confusing, right? Because pacing basically means how fast you’re moving. All I can say is that industry terms are a mess and I’m doing the best I can.
Wes: Do they both apply to the work as a whole? If I’m talking about a book, and I say, “The pacing in this book was good”, is that going to include momentum, or would I be like, “The pacing of this book is good, but in chapter seven, the movement just died.”
Chris: Actually, that’s probably more likely how you would talk about it. Movement, or momentum as we sometimes call it, is really something that you notice when there’s a problem. And when there’s not a problem, a lot of times you don’t really notice it. Now I do think there’s a certain extent where you could have slow movement or fast movement, and that would make a difference to the story. But most of the time it’s a question of, is it broken or not? Is it coming to a halt? Has it stopped or is it going?
Whereas pacing is very much about the level of tension throughout the story, and that pattern. It’s very much low or high, that kind of thing. And to make things even more complicated, there’s also pacing at a wordcraft level, which is in some ways more like movement… [breaks into laughter] Yeah. This is why we talk about them at the same time. So we can distinguish them from each other.
Oren: Chris, why do you do these things?
Wes: They make for a good conversation where we can just confuse ourselves and everyone.
Chris: Let’s break it down and get into each one more detail so that hopefully by the end of this podcast, we can tell them apart.
Wes: Good goal.
Chris: Wes, do you want to start by talking about pacing at the wordcraft level and what that means?
Wes: Yeah. So, when Chris pitched the topic, that’s kind of where my brain went: You’re looking at word choice, the diction employed, if there are sentence fragments, if there are simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, and then paragraph length. And that’s about as far as I think I want to go.
We’ve all encountered that where if it’s a fragment or a short sentence, you read it faster. It picks up the pace. It’s science. You can’t escape it. [laughter] Similarly, if you’re using words like “verisimilitude” instead of “truth” or something else, those longer words will slow things down too. Again, it’s science. We can only stash so many syllables in our brains. So if you’re cramming them all in on one fancy word, it’s gonna slog you down. And complex sentences, where the independent clause and the dependent clause are there – it’s just more stuff to keep in mind.
So when I think about people describing books like, “Oh, it’s just like candy. I like to gobble it up. It’s such an easy read.” I’m like, yeah, the words are very accessible and the sentence structures are nice and simple. You can cruise through without any hiccups. I think that that’s happening on a word craft level.
Chris: Right. It’s a breezy read.
Wes: Yeah, a breezy read. Totally. And I think that you can run into those kinds of line level problems, if they’re used inconsistently throughout. It might be good for a scene, or it might be novel in a moment to have a more jarring paragraph structure. But unless you’re doing some kind of avant-garde, wild novel…
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer, the pacing of that book is out of control. And that’s the point. Don’t read that unless you want to go in for a completely wild ride. But yeah, he plays with the words at such a level that I don’t even know how you can describe the pacing of that book.
Chris: It slows the reader down.
Wes: It really does.
Chris: Because it’s hard to read.
Wes: Yeah. It’s hard to read. He repeats a lot. He breaks up sentences. Sometimes the words are aligned differently on the page, making use of the typeface and sizing, spacing, white space – all that stuff can mess with your perception.
Oren: Oh no.
Wes: Yeah. Oh, House of Leaves is one that I was thinking of as well that does this. I don’t know, people who like avant-garde fiction will try these experiments.
Oren: What is it like to listen to that in audio?
Wes: I don’t think it works. I can’t imagine what that’d be like, because so much of it – you know, you open up a page that just says “NO”, in size 64 font. I don’t think the audio book does that.
Oren: You’re listening and then suddenly the narrator shouts, “No!”, and your ears hurt. Or you’re like “Ow. Okay, now I can’t hear very well anymore. Thank you.”
Wes: A good way to get back to it is, I think a lot of us were subjected to having to learn about iambic pentameter in school. And allegedly – and I think smarter people than I have said this, so I’m inclined to trust them – it more closely mimics our natural speech patterns. It’s just when you jam it into a verse form, it doesn’t look as natural.
Hank Green had a really good comment about how his kid could use iambic pentameter at like age five by saying things like, “Daddy, I want to go to Steak ‘n Shake.” It’s a nice, simple rhythm. So when you add syllables and break up sentence length and mess with more or less natural speech rhythms, that’ll affect your pace too, on a word level and a sentence level.
So that’s my rant. [laughs]
Chris: From what I understand, if we get to a little bit bigger scale, just to the line editing level, where we’re dealing with entire sentences and paragraphs. My understanding of pace is that it’s about the amount of filler, to a certain extent. Like, as you were saying, if you get repetitive, you say the same things over and over, that would slow down the pace. If you have extra paragraphs of description – you don’t need excessive description. That would slow down the pace.
Oren: I have a question at this level. So when you say filler, the natural response is, well, that must be bad. Does that mean that at the line level, you’re going for the fastest pace? Or can your pace be too fast? ‘Cause that’s the thing that can happen at the content level, which is where I live. Y’all are a bunch of weirdos down here in the weeds. I don’t know what you get up to down here.
Chris: I would argue the pace can be too fast.
Wes: Your instinct there is spot on. I sometimes think about this. If we’re talking about paragraphs, for example, I’m reading and I get to a new paragraph and I’m like, ah, new paragraph, fresh start.
And if I keep seeing a new paragraph, fresh start, a new paragraph, fresh start… Uh, it’s exhausting. I feel like your prose needs to breathe a little bit. Sometimes there’s deeper breaths than others, for longer sections.
Oren: So this is why you shouldn’t make all of your paragraphs a single line.
Wes: Oh my gosh, please don’t.
Chris: There’s no point in doing that. You might as well have the whole page be one big paragraph. The point of paragraphs is to group sentences together in useful ways. So if every sentence is by itself, you’re no longer doing that.
Oren: But think about how emphasized every paragraph would be!
Wes: So much focus!
Chris: But there are definitely some writers who try to use prose to make every single part of their story exciting. And it does become monotonous after a while. They do it with one sentence paragraphs and make everything punch. It can be too much.
Oren: Exclamation marks for everyone!
Chris: If you add more description, it slows the pace down, but in a lot of places, that’s what you want. You want to take a little time, for instance, if your character or your viewpoint character walks through a portal and is in another world. You do want to slow down a little bit and just absorb the surroundings for a paragraph or so. And if you skip past that, that’s gonna leave the reader, like, “Wait, what happened there? What did they see?
Oren: And my natural thought process to that is, okay, but you probably don’t want to do that if they’re getting attacked by a tiger, because something very immediate is happening. And if you spend a lot of time describing the environment when the tiger is attacking, that could be too slow. This should be a faster paced sequence.
Chris: Right. In fact, if we had a whole paragraph of description when the tiger is lunging, that would imply that the tiger is in slow-mo, or that everything stopped. Or, and this is where you get into time dilation issues in fight scenes, where you have too much text in there and it’s like, that shouldn’t have taken that long. How is it that the protagonist had the ability to think through a long thesis while the tiger was lunging? That doesn’t seem likely.
So, certainly. But as far as filler goes, there are also some clutter words for instance, or repetitive sentences – we already said that. There are definitely things where you could just say, this is filler.
Oren: Right. And those you would typically want to take out.
Okay. So what if they go through a portal into an alien world and then get attacked by a tiger?
Wes: I think for even the most perceptive among us, if that were to happen, you probably do take in a lot of detail, but you don’t have any time to process it. You can only react, and stories should mimic that. Assuming you escape or defeat the tiger on this alien world, then might be a time to let the hero catch their breath and say, “Whoa, where is this tiger’s stripes?”
Chris: You could even say, “I got a brief glance at a blue landscape before – tiger!” And after that is immediately dealt with, then it’s like, “Okay, now I have time to actually absorb my surroundings.”
Wes: Yeah. I like that idea of noticing, but not explaining. It’s there, but you don’t need to devote time, which is a nice nod to the reader that, yes, the narration has noticed things, but this is more pressing. We can visit that later.
Chris: And the words, like “blue landscape”, that’s very broad and vague, right? So it gives you the sense of a kind of blurry picture. That’s all I’ve got time to absorb before I have to deal with the tiger.
Okay. So we’ve got pacing at the wordcraft level. We talked about the tiny level of how long or short your sentences are, and a little bit bigger as to, do you have extra sentences, and how long your paragraphs are. So now let’s talk about pacing at the storytelling level: What somebody who’s doing content editing or developmental editing or story editing would talk about as far as what pacing in the story is.
Oren: This is the part where I know things! [laughter]
Wes: Before we jump into Oren’s knowing things, I do want to ask how you both feel about short chapters. And, I would like to note, short chapters that are numbered as such and not like Discworld, which has no chapter names, but sometimes frequent breaks between characters and sections. There’s like 40 chapters, but each one is a few pages long. That can give you an illusion of pace, but I find it exhausting.
Oren: It’s hard for me to have opinions on chapter length, because I just don’t think that they matter.
Wes: That’s a good take.
Oren: My opinion on chapters is that they are almost irrelevant at the level I’m working at, because scenes will either go on for too long or they won’t. Where you decide to put in a chapter break isn’t hugely impactful on that. You probably wouldn’t put a chapter break in the middle of a scene, but if the issue is that your scenes are too short and you’re just putting a chapter break at the end of each scene and your scenes are too short – yeah, that sounds like a problem. But if you’re scene is the right length, then sure, make that a chapter. Or don’t. Make that scene and the next scene a chapter. I don’t think it matters.
Wes: Fresh take, Oren.
Chris: I might argue that, if you’re listening to audio books, and you listen to audiobooks while you’re cooking and you start listening when you start cooking and you stop listening when you stop cooking, and that’s how you choose how long to listen to – and it’s kind of harder to browse an audio book than it is an actual physical book or something that’s written – then it will never feel like chapters matter. But for some people… again, everybody has different reading habits. If you’re in the habit of reading a chapter before you go to bed every night, then chapters do start to matter much more because they affect your choices as to how much you read in one sitting,
Oren: Let’s be very polite to very hypothetical people who listen entirely to audio books while cooking, who are, you know, not me, definitely. [Chris and Wes laugh] Before hypothetically I only listened to audio books, just for the record, I did use to read actual books made of paper and I don’t really think I ever bothered with chapters. I would stop when I felt like it. And then I would dog ear the page.
Oren: Deal with it.
Wes: I can’t stop the chapter, but I can dog ear. So I’m halfway there, Oren.
Oren: My complete disregard for chapters I think started before I switched over primarily to audio books. Except for my client work. I read my client work. That’s where I do my actual reading with my eyeballs.
Chris: Right. But my point is that different people have different story consumption habits, and the chapters can be useful ways of dividing up the story into manageable pieces, and keeping track of where you are in the story, especially if you don’t like to dog ear those pages.
Wes: It’s a very large, noticeable break, and breaks will always affect how someone moves through your work.
Chris: And I think that if you’re reading for enjoyment and at some point you’re going to stop, every time you get to a check or break, it occurs to you: Should I stop here? Is this a good place to stop?
Wes: It’s like a little self-care reminder. It’s like, oh no, I should go to sleep now. It’s too late.
Chris: But I agree with you, Wes, that the length of chapters can give an impression of pacing, just like the length of paragraphs can. I just think that there are also other concerns when we’re looking at chapter length, besides pacing, that factor in. If you have wildly different chapter lengths, like you might have fairly wildly different paragraph lengths, then that’s to a certain degree going to make it harder for the reader to sort of manage those bite-sized pieces of the story. That creates other issues for some people in their reading habits. So I think that it’s okay to have chapters of different lengths, but if one is two pages and another is 40 pages, I don’t know about that.
Wes: And one of them’s a prologue or an interlude… [all laugh]
Oren: Well then you just have to kill it with fire. It’s the only way.
Chris: In any case, yeah, to a certain extent, we could apply that kind of wordcraft definition of pacing to the larger story level.
All right, Oren, what do you know? Tell us.
Oren: Okay. Well, what I know – and maybe it’s wrong, but what I thought I know, is that pacing at a story level basically measures how high the tension is. And you typically want your tension to go in a jagged, but upwardly trending line, where you have a period of higher, increasing tension as something exciting or important – doesn’t have to be violence, but something that matters, has high stakes – is happening.
And then you have a dip where your tension dips a bit and everything is a little more relaxed, and you have a little slower scene and then the tension goes back up again, and something else happens. It looks like one of those graphs that goes up and down, but it’s also going up – because if it’s not going up, then that’s a problem.
Chris: I refer to it sometimes as “the pointy staircase that would be unpleasant to climb”.
Oren: Yeah. I wouldn’t want to climb that. But in general, if you finish a high tension sequence where something really important was happening – the character’s life was in danger or they were going to lose their house, or they were going to break up with their partner or something like that – and then you immediately launch into another one, your pacing is probably too fast. And if you have a rest scene where the characters are recovering, and then you immediately have another one of those, your pacing is probably too slow.
And that’s not the perfect way to look at it, because sometimes a single high tension sequence or a single rest phase could go on for too long, and you could say that’s the same scene, but it just keeps going. Or you can also have problems where you can have the right pattern, but be trending in the wrong direction.
I actually read a book recently that had these problems. I’m not going to say what they are exactly because Chris is still reading it, but Project Hail Mary has this problem towards the end, where it has the right path, but the tension is trending downward, and it’s very odd. So, you know, knowing the stairs graph is not a perfect solution, but it’s a good place to start.
Chris: And to be more specific about why we do this: People need novelty. The same thing just has less effect over time, and that includes tension. So when you have one level of tension that the story starts on, and then the next scene is the same level of tension – that same level of tension has less effect on the reader, because they’re already used to it.
That’s why a story has to increase in tension towards the climax, because it requires more and more tension to engage the reader at the same level. So from scene to scene, you generally want to increase the tension continually. But then when you get to a certain point where things are exciting, if you continue that for too long, people become exhausted. It actually becomes monotonous if you have the tension too high for too long, and it loses its effect.
I’ve definitely seen movies, such as Space Sweepers, that have this problem where the action just keeps going and going. After a while, I’m just tired of the effort that I have to put in to keep track of what’s happening, and the action just doesn’t have an impact anymore. It’s just kind of monotonous and I just start tuning out.
Oren: I would say that having like high tension scenes go on for too long is less of a problem than having low tension scenes go on for too long, but definitely still a thing that can happen.
Chris: I’ve seen it in written works too. But yes, it is definitely more unusual than having low tension go on for too long. Just as a contrast to Space Sweepers, the movie Fury Road has lots of action, but also has very strategically placed resting periods where the action ends. We have some quiet conversations between the characters, and then it starts to build up again and then we get another action sequence.
So that’s basically how it works: you want to build up the tension, get to some peak, drop it again. But the whole thing should be sloping upwards, so the goal is that every peak would hopefully be higher tension than your last peak, and every valley where you’re having a resting period would actually be a little higher tension than your last valley. Not necessarily because more exciting things are happening in the scene, but because of the plot overall tension, what I call the background tension, which is things like the chances that they’ll succeed in the plot overall. It’s not anything that’s actively happening. It’s not a present conflict. It’s just the general outlook in the story that is tenser.
Oren: This is also why – and I’d say this is actually a fairly common problem – you shouldn’t start with the highest tension thing you can think of. Because you need to build from there. It needs to go up. And if you start with the highest tension thing your story can handle, then it’s like, well, okay. Where do we go from here?
And I’m not going to name any names, but Demon Slayer does this all the time.
Chris: We also have some books – again, novelists often work really hard to make their opening engaging. Occasionally you’ll find a novel where yes, the opening is really engaging, but the novelist couldn’t keep that up. So the story had to drop in tension. And that’s one of the reasons we have something that’s commonly referred to as the meddlesome middle. There’s so many novels where the middle is just the most boring part. We had an engaging opening, the ending is at the climax, and all the fight scenes, but the middle is just kind of tinkering around. One of the reasons that happens is because people work so hard at making their opening engaging that they’re unable to keep building on that.
And sometimes it’s not even a fit for the story. This is an issue with The Calculating Stars, where we have a survival conflict in the beginning, but that’s just not what the story’s about in general. And it’s higher tension than the middle of the book.
Oren: I was going to mention The Calculating Stars, because that’s definitely the most famous published example I can think of. I run into this problem with my clients all the time, where I will sometimes just start a chapter and be like, “Chris. Wow. This is a really cool chapter. I wonder if it’s going to maintain it.” And then I’ll come back a few hours later and be like, “Oh no, it didn’t.”
Wes: I just imagine you being so excited, and then all slumped and sad. “They let me down again.” [chuckles]
Chris: So yeah. That’s a good summary of pacing, and what good pacing is in the story. It can be real tricky to keep things going up throughout the story. But it does make a big difference in making the experience good for the reader from start to finish.
Wes: I like that you grounded it in the tension and conflict and the stakes of that, because that’s a nice actionable reminder. It’s like, “Why do they care now? Do they remember what happened? And do they still care now?” They can’t forget, they shouldn’t forget what’s happened to them as the story goes on, and that should inform what’s happening to them as the story goes on. So yeah, I like that.
Oren: Okay, so we said we were going to talk about movement and how that’s different from pacing.
Chris: So let’s talk about tea parties.
Wes: Green, black, or herbal?
Oren: Ooh. I like tea parties.
Chris: So if we kept going about tea parties, we would be holding the movement in this podcast. Listeners know that we’re supposed to go and talk about movement next, but if we just start talking about tea parties for a while, we’re not getting there.
Wes: Like when you turn to the next chapter and something completely different is going on and you’re like, what happened?
Chris: So, tangents are one violation of movement. Tangents are one way that movement stops. Movement is a sense that events are coming to a head, that characters are on a collision course with each other, or a sense that the plot is making progress towards the climax. It does depend on what arc we’re talking about here.
If you have an arc that’s fighting this big bad, and you take a break to do a side quest, that’s not movement in the main arc. And if that main plot is what’s providing most of the tension engagement in the story, then that part is going to feel really slow. An example we sometimes talk about is in Avatar: The Last Airbender, this episode Oren loves, called The Beach. [laughter]
Wes (in singsong voice): Let’s play some volleyball.
Oren (groans): Eehhh. No. No!
Chris: The funny thing about this episode is, we’re in the final season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, when things are heating up towards the final showdown between Aang and the Fire Lord. And we have this episode, where the very opening is that Zuko and Azula and Azula’s friends were sent on a mandatory vacation, while the Fire Lord and his advisors do the actual important plot business. And they’re just going to hang out on this beach for an episode.
Right away, this tells viewers that what happens here is not going to have any effect on the actual conflict between Aang and the Fire Lord that’s the main plot, the main arc for the show. It’s a tangent. And that means that there’s no movement. This is why people refer to some episodes on TV as filler episodes. “It’s just filler.” Well, what do they mean by filler? They mean that what they’re expecting is progress on an overarching plot and if that’s not happening, it feels like the content is meaningless because it has no effect on the parts of the story that are engaging them.
This was also a frustration that happened with The Mandalorian where it has a very strong plot about, you know, Baby Yoda, and whether Baby Yoda is going to be safe and whether Baby Yoda’s going to be returned to the Jedi. Some viewers got frustrated, and I think it made it worse that there was only eight episodes in the first season. And when there was an episode spent on Tatooine, people didn’t feel like it was relevant enough to whether our Baby Yoda was going to be able to meet back up with the Jedi. They felt like that was filler.
Oren: Yeah. Which is so weird to me, ‘cause I loved that episode.
Chris: That was a strange one for us because we both liked that episode, and then we found that most viewers did not like it. So that was very interesting for us.
Oren: I think you’re right. I think it is because it felt like a filler episode, but that didn’t bother me because I was viewing them all as independent stories that happened to all have Baby Yoda in them. I was just liking it, because it was a very nice self-contained story, but it didn’t really make any progress on the season arc. So yeah, I can see why people would think that was filler.
Chris: And even if you do reveal how stuff matters later, readers and viewers can still be frustrated or feel bored during the time when they think that it’s not going to matter. You can also get rid of movement retroactively in a way that’s very unsatisfying. If you have a character that does a bunch of things to, for instance, solve a mystery. And then you find out that they were following a red herring, and now they’re just back at square one and nothing that they did made any difference towards actually solving that mystery – that’s just very unsatisfying. It’s like, well, I thought we’d made progress along this plot. I thought we were closer to solving the mystery. Now I found out that we’re back where we were like two chapters ago.
You can solve that just by making it so that chasing that red herring mattered in some way – it gave them some additional information towards solving the mystery, what have you. But if you just learned that none of that mattered because that was the wrong lead to chase, that is retroactively taking away all of the movement from those portions, and that feels really unsatisfying.
Oren: Yeah. I talked about that in my mystery article. And, just in general, if something feels boring and pointless in the moment, revealing later that it was actually all connected isn’t going to fix that.
Wes: Yeah. You can’t trick us.
Oren: That’s not helping. It doesn’t go back and retroactively make that part exciting.
Chris: That’s something that we have to continually remind people of. Every part of the experience matters. It’s not enough to just tell them, “Wait, wait, wait, you’ll see later that this is important.”
Oren: That’s like half my job.
Chris: A lot of these problems are also very solvable. Where people will hear from their beta readers, “Oh, this doesn’t seem to matter”, or, “It’s weird that this is happening”, and they’re like, “No, no, it will all make sense later” and use that to dismiss beta reader feedback when actually, those are problems that are solvable in the way that you are presenting your content. There are ways to present this part of the story so readers know that it matters. And there’s ways to sanction uncertainty, so they understand if something is supposed to be a mystery, as opposed to just something you did on accident that’s confusing. There are ways to communicate that to them.
Oren: Unfortunately, if people want to know more of that, they will have to listen to another episode. I’m going to have to call this episode to a close. Hopefully the pacing was good and you weren’t too distracted by the tea parties. But 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 and she lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
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