I'm reading an old "cozy" mystery, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, and it's brought up some issues about getting the plot started. The basic premise is that Mrs. P is an old lady (long widowed, kids in their late 30s, so probably she's near 70), and she becomes a spy for the CIA. And there's a series of books about her spy adventures.
This is the first book, and the opening chapters set up not only the first book but the whole series. So the set up is more meticulous probably than in most cozies. And it was written in the 60s, so the plot is a bit more creaky in prep than we'd have now, with our rapid openings. However, it does something missing from a lot of submissions and manuscripts I see today. Whether in the background or foreground, many books aren't really setting up the major opening plot action.
Two kinds of set up:
1) Major character motivation.
2) Action necessity.
Let's see how this is set up in this cozy mystery:
1) Mrs. Pollifax as the book opens feels so bored and useless she's actually contemplating suicide. And it's not just a theoretical "no one would even notice if I were gone". She's actually standing on her apartment house roof moving her plants around when the thought occurs to her to just step off. That's how bored she is, how much she longs for a more meaningful existence. Her doctor, recognizing her depression, asks her if there's anything she ever wanted to do that now (kids grown) she has the freedom to do. She remembers a childhood spent preparing to be a spy, a plan cut short by society's dictate that she marry. As soon as she imagines spying for her country now, she perks up and forgets to be bored.
2) But of course, we all want to be something, and the universe doesn't have to cooperate. It's not just enough that Mrs. Pollifax decides she wants to be a spy. Somehow the necessity for this has to also be set up. So in a complicated series of events (but not implausible), she goes to the CIA and applies and is accidentally assigned to a mission.
A. She is bored and depressed (her state as the book opens).
B. She is led towards an action that scares her into a better action (going to doctor).
C. Doctor gives her the seed.
D. She remembers her youthful dream.
E. She acts on the dream (goes to CIA).
F. CIA scoffs at her (conflict/resistance).
G. She's there at the CIA waiting for scoffing CIA agent.
H. CIA senior agent needs woman courier.
I. Mistakes Mrs. P for the courier.
J. Appoints her to mission.
That's about two scenes (first chapter). Now, as I said, this is an older book. Now we'd probably compress that into one scene to get to the inciting incident (her being assigned to the mission) quickly, so she'd probably be at the CIA when the story opens, and there's some quick fill-in back-paragraph like "She wondered what Dr. Billups would say if he knew.... But he was the one who suggested...."
And we might now try to avoid the coincidence that got the senior CIA agent to choose her for the assignment. We might make Mrs. P secretly slip into the office and pretend that she's the supposed agent, or have the young agent who likes her maneuvers to get her chosen.
But one way or another, this is what we want-- to set up the motivation for the action, and then whatever is necessary to make the plot get started plausibly.
Today, we get things started quickly. But we shouldn't skimp on set up. We should set up what we need to set up the opening of the plot: Character and action.