On Breaking Rules: The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is about as basic as it gets. Something or someone has to drag our protagonist out the door kicking and screaming and send them on their adventure. The Hobbit is the example par excellence: Bilbo is content to live in his hobbit hole forever, to never see the wider world or engage in its politics. But then Gandalf arrives with a pack of dwarves and insists Bilbo adventure with the dwarves whether he likes it or not, and he very much does not. The inciting incident is often called ‘crossing the threshold’ and that’s exactly what Bilbo does. He crosses the threshold out of his cozy, familiar world and into the much scarier world of dragons and dwarves and magic. The inciting incident is necessary because stories are about change and conflict. The protagonist must leave the normal world to go on a journey, either physical or metaphorical. The slice of life genre can most easily justify forgoing the inciting incident because they’re about life, where boundaries and change aren’t as clearly delineated. But there’s still usually some change, like the appearance of new characters in Pride and Prejudice or the death in Thirteen Reasons Why or someone vanishing in Paper Towns or a move in Anne of Green Gables. However, The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, as a book about inescapable and oppressive forces, forgoes the inciting incident entirely.

From the book jacket:

On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses—until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten.

The novel begins as the unnamed protagonist – later a novelist – listens as her mother shows her disappeared objects. The novelist doesn’t understand these objects, but they’re clearly significant to her mother. The relative safety and slight confusion of childhood could be ‘the normal world’ that the novelist later leaves – entering a dangerous but predictable world – but there’s no divide between this moment and the rest of the book, except that of the time between childhood and adulthood. While the situation does become increasingly dangerous, the novelist’s childhood wasn’t particularly safe, as we learn later, and she never fully understands the disappearances. Instead, this world is the world, the only world.

In the second chapter, her parents are dead, but the deaths aren’t framed as particularly momentous. It’s only another sort of disappearance. Similarly, the disappearance of birds, the first disappearance we see on the page, isn’t particularly significant. In fact, for most people, the disappearances are distinctly insignificant. These drastic changes, which often cost people their pets, jobs, and precious memories, mean almost nothing. The characters breeze over them, disposing of the offending items, and then move on.

The novelist lives in the world as it is and has always been, a world ruled by a fascist law so ubiquitous that arbitrary disappearances are not ordered by a faceless government, but stitched into the very fabric of the world. That world is suffocating and inescapable – quite literally, as they live on an island where the ferry is long since disappeared – and yet expected. It would be counter to the point for a specific event to force the novelist to deal with the world she’s already living in. The death of the novelist’s parents could’ve been an inciting incident, spurring her on to take action against the dictatorship of the world’s magic system, but they don’t because at no point does the novelist fight back. Her editor will eventually press her to fight back, but she never does. She is, in fact, incapable of doing so. She was born into this world and doesn’t know how to fight against it because she doesn’t know what else the world could look like.

There is no inciting incident because The Memory Police is about the customs and cultures of our world that we never considered problematic, but simply go along with day by day. It’s about oppressive forces that are so unquestioned we see them as laws of reality and, honestly, find them easy to live with, no matter how they wear us away. There is no moment that drags us into those forces; we already live in them.