The "Problems" Book
North of Beautiful is a great example of what could be called a "Problems" book. It starts with the main character's problem of having a large birthmark on her face, intimates a problem with her boyfriend, then dives into the problem with her father.
There is no PE to create a problem: Her life already has these problems.
Not to brag or anything, but if you saw me from behind, you'd probably think I was perfect.
The PE sets events in motion, but usually it creates a problem. So starting with a problem is really not a lot different from starting with a PE.
My book The Holy Grail (and Other Assorted Problems) was designed to be a problems book, the most interesting being that the Holy Grail has appeared in her attic and strange people are showing up at her house to visit it. I start my book with the first appearance of the problem:
Knocking? Who knocks on a door nowadays? Who would be coming to our house?
I open the door cautiously and see a skinny old man wearing a rumpled suit.
Very strange. I ask politely, "Can I help you?"
He flails his arms nervously. "I certainly hope so. I'm Dr. Ronald Tomens, head curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I've driven all the way here for no reason whatsoever. Just a compulsion to see an attic. Strangest thing in all my life." He peers at me. "Perhaps you know why I'm here?"
"No." Our attic? That has to be a coincidence.
Another book beginning with quick setting and then a problem:
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream, and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway)
So, the old man does have a "normal" life, but now there is a crisis: He's gone too long without catching a fish. There's still an obvious PE – catching a large fish that drags him out to sea. So this isn't a great example of a Problems book; I wouldn't even categorize it that way. But the book is beginning with a problem.
It's possible, in a way, to combine these: Life is normal, except there is a problem. There could be some deadline on the problem, but if the character has lived with this problem for a while, then having the problem is life as normal.
But then one day . . . a precipitating event occurs, setting into motion a chain of events that will eventually lead to problem being addressed.
We have met a fault line.
"Would my great ancestors be proud to know they produced a goddam grocery clerk in a goddam wop store in a town they used to own?"
Steinbeck throws that into the setting he is disguising as dialogue. But it's the fault line to the PE of someone making him a shady offer.
(In a tragedy, fault lines are common; they contribute to the unhappy ending. An example is Of Mice and Men. You can think of Lennie's mental difficulties as a problem, but it isn't going to be solved. It still helps drive the plot.