Macy is in her rental car, driving to a wedding her mother made her go to because it’s supposed to have oodles of eligible bachelors and Macy must want an eligible bachelor, right? The wedding is at an elegant estate called Hillebrand Manor so Macy has worn a black silk sheath and Chanel pumps. As she drives to the manor, the gas gauge hovering only slightly above empty, something doesn’t seem right. To her left, she sees a field of cows. They stink and she can’t imagine how anyone could live near them. To her right, she sees a bug-infested lake with no signs of life around it. She reaches for the directions her best friend Tina prepared for her. She had told Tina that she’d get them herself but Tina insisted and Macy didn’t have the guts to tell her No, despite the fact that she knows Tina has the worst sense of direction on the planet and can’t use a computer to save her life. Glancing at the bottom of the directions, Macy sees the final destination: Hillgrand Farms. She slams on the brakes and then spends the next 10 minutes swearing about every stupid thing Tina has ever done. She berates herself for letting her mother talk her into another stupid setup and for not getting her own damn directions, going on to reaffirm that you can’t trust anyone with anything and should just do things yourself. When she has calmed down, Macy smooths her hair in the mirror, takes a deep breath and tells herself to continue. Because she can do it. She can find this damn wedding on her own.
The above snippet is a short example of the kind of thing you want to see in your setup (usually first chapter). Why?
1) It has action. The main character isn’t in conflict (to start) but she’s going somewhere. Note that she’s not going 200 miles an hour and isn’t lost initially. You don’t want to be doing #2 when the reader is too dizzy to keep up with #1. For my own stories, I try to limit the setup to one location (in this case, a car).
2) It is set in the best possible place in order to establish the main character (she’s single, can’t say no to people, was probably ill prepared for this trip, thinks she has to do everything herself if she wants it done right, hates farms and the country).
3) It provides a setup to the inciting incident. The main character is entering a new situation where you can slam her with an incident she hasn’t faced before. In this case, if the incident were something like she gets lost and ends up having to live on a farm because the people there say they will help her but then never get off their butts to do so, we will feel the slam because #2 already established that Macy hates farms but can’t say no to people. Obviously, these flaws have been chosen because the climax of the story is going to force her to say No whilst on a farm and whilst letting someone else (possibly, an eligible bachelor?) do something for her. Presto, bingo, voila and POOF!
When writing your setup, my advice is this: decide which characteristics you’re going to “test” in your climax then backup and find a way to establish them in your setup (#2). If your climax is testing your main character’s ability to stand up for herself, your setup absolutely must show that she doesn’t stand up for herself. You don’t need to say why (that can come in the build-up).