What is it about?

We probe how a sprawling, dynamic, complex narrative of massive scale ("A Song of Ice and Fire") achieved broad accessibility and acclaim without surrendering to the need for reductionist simplifications. Subtle narrational tricks such as how natural social networks are mirrored and how events are scheduled are unveiled. The narrative network matches evolved cognitive abilities to enable complex messages be conveyed in accessible ways while story time and discourse time are carefully distinguished in ways matching theories of narratology. This marriage of science and humanities opens avenues to comparative literary studies. It provides quantitative support, for example, for the widespread view that deaths appear to be randomly distributed throughout the narrative even though, in fact, they are not.

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Why is it important?

People largely make sense of the world through narratives, but we lacked scientific understanding of what makes complex stories widely relatable and comprehensible. This paper takes quantitative steps to achieve this. The books analyzed are famous for unexpected twists, such as how characters are killed off seemingly at random The paper allow us to quantitatively verify observations such as this that are made by readers of the series. We see how the author arranges the chapters so that deaths appear even more random than would be if the tale were told chronologically. This study also offers evidence that good writers work very carefully within the psychological limits of the reader. As such this work opens up exciting new possibilities for examining the structure and design of epics in all sorts of contexts. Indeed, combined with machine learning, we may even be able to predict what an upcoming series may look like.


As part of the 10-year old "Maths Meets Myths" research project, the marriage of science and humanities in this paper opens exciting new avenues for comparative literary studies. Indeed, as one esteemed commentator said, it may become an " exemplar" for digital humanities for the full computational power of network science has not yet been applied to humanities projects of this kind. Nonetheless, as this project demonstrates it offers the prospect of probing behind the tsunami of detail to provide novel insights into the patterns that underlie stories. As such, it offers a potentially valuable addition to the literary scholar’s analytical toolkit. Impact of this type or work is unpredictable. For example, related work in the "Maths Meets Myths" series identified misappropriation of mythology in Ireland and flaws in the processes that led to it. This in turn enriched, influenced, informed and changed performance, policies, practices, understanding and awareness of a very diverse set of beneficiaries.

Ralph Kenna
Coventry University

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This page is a summary of: Narrative structure of A Song of Ice and Fire creates a fictional world with realistic measures of social complexity, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, November 2020, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2006465117.
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