Quentin Jacobsen begins his story by speculating that one miracle—one incredible, unlikely thing — will happen to every person during their lifetime. He tells his reader that his miracle was living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman in Jefferson Park, their subdivision of Orlando, Florida. He goes on to recount an experience he and Margo had when they were nine years old: riding their bicycle together one morning, they discover the body of a man named Robert Joyner, who has committed suicide, lying beneath a tree.
Nine years later, as they prepare to finish their senior year at Winter Park High School, Margo and Quentin’s friendship has long since fizzled out. Still, Quentin admires Margo from afar, convinced he is madly in love with her. Margo is glamorous and popular, famous amongst her peers for her incredible adventures and elaborate schemes. Quentin is a mild-mannered nerd, though he has excellent friends, Radar and Ben.
Without warning, one night in the beginning of May, Margo appears outside Quentin’s bedroom window telling him she needs his help. She has discovered that her boyfriend, Jase, has been cheating on her with one of her best friends, Becca, and has resolved to spend the night taking revenge. Quentin sneaks out of the house and spends the night with Margo, driving across Orlando and having adventures. They play elaborate pranks on the people who have done them wrong. Halfway through the night, Margo takes Quentin to the twenty-fifth floor of a downtown office building. Observing Orlando from above, Margo tells Quentin that it is a “paper town,” full of superficial people. She seems deeply sad, but Quentin does not have the courage to talk with her honestly about what is wrong. When they leave the SunTrust Building, Margo and Quentin break into SeaWorld. They delight in one another’s company, and by the time Margo drops him off at home in the early morning, Quentin is more infatuated with her than he has ever been.
Margo is not at school the next day, but Quentin doesn’t worry — she has disappeared before, and always returned. That weekend, however, Margo’s parents arrive at the Jacobsen’s house accompanied by Detective Otis Warren, a police officer who has been assigned to investigate Margo’s disappearance. The Spiegelmans talk resentfully about Margo’s habit of leaving vague clues as to her whereabouts whenever she has run away in the past. When Quentin returns to his room, he notices a poster hanging on the shade of Margo’s bedroom window, which has never been there before. He decides the poster is one of Margo’s clues, this time left for him rather than her parents. With Ben and Radar, Quentin goes into Margo’s room and uncovers a string of clues, the last of which is Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry Ben discovers among Margo’s things.
On Monday, Margo’s friend Lacey approaches Quentin and Ben asking what they know about Margo’s disappearance. Ben and Lacey begin talking, and Ben convinces Lacey to go to prom with him. Quentin has been puzzling over two lines in Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” which urge the reader to remove doors from their hinges, and which he thinks must hold the key to Margo’s next clue. In a moment of inspiration, he takes his own bedroom door off its hinges and finds a scrap of paper with an address printed on it in Margo’s handwriting. He, Radar, and Ben drive to the address and discover a dilapidated strip mall that has been abandoned for decades. They discover painted-over graffiti that reads: “YOU WILL GO TO THE PAPER TOWNS AND YOU WILL NEVER COME BACK.” Quentin begins to fear that Margo has taken her own life, and realizes that the larger-than-life version of Margo he fell in love with bears little resemblance to the real, troubled young woman he is now trying to find.
An online search reveals that the phrase “paper towns” sometimes refers to unfinished subdivisions, which Quentin’s mother calls pseudovisions. Quentin compiles a list of all the pseudovisions in central Florida, and begins traveling to them one by one. Each time he arrives at a new place, he fears he will find Margo dead, but there is never any trace of her presence. Meanwhile, Ben and Radar are progressing through the rituals that come with finishing high school. They go to prom, and each of them begins a serious relationship with a girl — Ben with Lacey, and Radar with his girlfriend Angela. Many people encourage Quentin to let his investigation rest and focus on his own life, but the thought that Margo may be dead makes it impossible for him to move on.
Quentin returns often to the strip mall, and on one of his trips discovers a road map with pinholes in five different places. He begins to think Margo may have intended to travel. All the while, he is reading “Song of Myself” in increasingly greater depth, and thinking about its themes of human connection. He realizes that he has imagined Margo wrongly for many years, and is greatly humbled by that realization.
On the morning of his high school graduation, a series of chance discoveries lead Quentin to realizes that Margo has gone to the town of Agloe, New York. He also realizes that she is planning to leave Agloe the next day. He, Radar, Lacey, and Ben skip graduation together and drive twenty-one hours in Quentin’s minivan to upstate New York. In Agloe, they find Margo living in an abandoned barn. Their reunion is tense, as Margo is mortified at having been discovered. Lacey, Radar, and Ben storm out in anger. Quentin stays, and Margo calms down. They spend the rest of the day together, talking frankly about what they have both experienced in the three weeks since she disappeared. Quentin urges Margo to come back to Orlando with him. Margo urges Quentin to come with her to New York City, where she intends to go next. They realize that they need to follow different paths in life, though they feel bound together by incredible intimacy, understanding and love.