Station Eleven opens during a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear in Toronto. The lead role is played by Arthur Leander, an aging Hollywood actor minutes from his death. Onstage with Arthur is Kirsten Raymonde, a young girl playing one of Lear’s daughters. Suddenly, Arthur suffers a massive heart attack, and Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparazzo and now an EMT in training, leaps on stage to attempt to save Arthur with CPR. As a doctor and medics take over, Jeevan comforts Kirsten and explains to her that Arthur has died. In the theater, members of the cast and crew of Lear consider reaching out to Arthur’s family, noting his young son Tyler who lives in Israel with his mother, Elizabeth Colton. They decide to reach out to Arthur’s lawyer, and the narrator then states that everyone still left in the theater would die within three weeks.
Meanwhile, Jeevan receives a phone call from his friend Hua, who alerts him to the pending outbreak of the Georgia Flu, which Hua believes will become a global epidemic. Jeevan acts quickly, stocking up on survival equipment before going to board up with his paraplegic brother, Frank. While Jeevan prepares for the looming pandemic, word spreads of Arthur’s death to his ex wives, including Miranda Carroll, his first wife, who is in Malaysia when she receives a call from Clark Thomson relaying Arthur’s death.
The novel then jumps ahead to twenty years after the outbreak of the Georgia Flu and the collapse of civilization, focusing on the Traveling Symphony, a band of musicians and Shakespeare actors traveling in the Great Lakes region of the former United States. Kirsten, now a member of the Symphony, and the other actors rehearse for a production of King Lear. We learn that Kirsten and her good friend August often break into abandoned houses, and that Kirsten is constantly seeking new editions of comics that Arthur had given her back when she knew him, titled “Dr. Eleven.”
The Symphony arrives in a town called St. Deborah by the Water, where they expect to meet Charlie and the sixth guitar (Jeremy), two members of the Symphony who stayed behind in the town the last time the Symphony passed through because they were having a child. But the Symphony instead finds a changed town, which is now ruled by a religious leader called the Prophet. Not wanting to get caught up in the town’s possibly dangerous drama, the Symphony leaves immediately after a performance. During their flight, Kirsten reflects on the tabloids she has collected that detail Arthur’s life.
The novel then transitions back to a time before the Flu, pivoting on one of the photos of Arthur that Kirsten has collected. Arthur and Miranda meet and fall in love, and Miranda soon leaves her abusive boyfriend and marries Arthur. We learn about Miranda’s art project, the “Dr. Eleven” graphic novels that will eventually come to be treasured by Kirsten. Later, at a dinner party in Hollywood, Miranda meets Clark Thomson, and she realizes that her marriage with Arthur is ending, as he is cheating on her with a co-star in his current movie: Elizabeth Colton. After this realization, Miranda meets Jeevan, who is working as a paparazzo and who tricks her into an unflattering photograph.
Through a series of excerpts from an interview Kirsten did during Year Fifteen after the Flu outbreak, we learn that Kirsten’s parents died immediately in the collapse, and that she and her brother walked for the first year, of which she remembers nothing, until Kirsten’s brother, too, died and she found the Symphony. Back in Year Twenty, after leaving St. Deborah by the Water and fleeing the Prophet, the Symphony realizes that a young girl named Eleanor has stowed away to avoid being forced to become another one of the Prophet’s wives. Despite being afraid that it will look like they have kidnapped Eleanor, the Symphony decides to keep moving and head towards the fabled Museum of Civilization.
After a few days of travel in this direction, members of the Symphony, starting with Sayid and Dieter, begin to go missing. The Symphony is unable to find them, and soon the Clarinet disappears as well, but they decide to follow their “separation protocol” and try to meet everyone who can make it at the Museum of Civilization. Soon after continuing on, Kirsten and August discover a golf course to loot. They find useful supplies, but when they emerge, they have lost the Symphony, and now must travel alone. They then find an untouched house, in which they find more useful items such as new costumes.
Back before the Flu, we are given a glimpse of Arthur’s mind through the letters he has written to his friend Victoria, which are published without his prior knowledge in an article called “Dear V.” Clark and Elizabeth, both mentioned in the book, plan to meet to discuss it.
We then return to Jeevan and his brother Frank, who have been surviving shut in Frank’s apartment. The two keep each other company and slowly run through supplies, until Frank decides that his disability will be a hindrance to Jeevan. He kills himself so that Jeevan will have a better chance of survival out in the world. Around day sixty, Jeevan leaves the apartment and begins walking. Jeevan winds up working as a doctor in a post-collapse settlement in what was once Virginia.
Back in the days before Arthur’s death, he gets in touch with Miranda to tell her that his father has died, and to alert her to the impending publication of “Dear V.” The two meet, and when they do Miranda also briefly meets young Kirsten. Two weeks later, Clark calls Miranda to inform her about Arthur’s death. Clark then boards a flight for Toronto, which is grounded early in Severn City, at which point he notices that Elizabeth and Tyler are on his flight. Meanwhile, Miranda contracts the Georgia Flu and dies in Malaysia.
In the terminal at Severn City, passengers are at first uncertain as to what is going on in the world. A single airplane lands after the flight bound for Toronto, but it stops on the runway and is never brought to a gate. Slowly, the severity of the outbreak becomes clear, and many, including Clark, Elizabeth, and Tyler, settle permanently in the airport, building a community. Tyler also comes into possession of some of Miranda’s comic “Dr. Eleven,” which he loves. Through the first difficult years, Tyler and Elizabeth become extremely religious, and they eventually leave. Clark begins curating the Museum of Civilization, collecting and preserving items from before the collapse that now, after the fall of civilization, no longer work.
The novel then turns back to Kirsten and August, who have been separated from the Symphony for three days. Walking, they meet two of the Prophet’s men and a boy, the three of whom are holding Sayid captive. Kirsten and August proceed to kill the two men, while the boy runs away. Sayid then reveals that Dieter has died, and that the Prophet had captured the Clarinet in the hopes of making an exchange for Eleanor. The Clarinet, though, had escaped, and alerted the Symphony to change their route. After Sayid explains what happened, the three continue on to the airport, but the Prophet intercepts them. During a tense faceoff between Kirsten and the Prophet, the Prophet quotes from “Dr. Eleven,” revealing to the reader that the Prophet is Tyler Leander. Kirsten recognizes the quote from “Dr. Eleven,” distracting the Prophet, and in that moment the young boy kills the Prophet and then commits suicide.
Kirsten, Sayid, and Eleanor then reunite with Charlie and Jeremy at the airport, and ultimately with the rest of the Symphony as well. At the Museum, Kirsten is recognized by Clark, who has read the interview she did in Year Fifteen. Clark takes Kirsten up to the top of the control tower, where, through a telescope, a town with functional electric streetlamps is visible in the distance. After some performances, Kirsten leaves one of her “Dr. Eleven” comics in Clark’s care at the Museum before setting off to new territory. As the novel closes, Clark realizes that Miranda is the artist who created “Dr. Eleven,” because he recognizes a scene in the comic as originating from the dinner party where he met Miranda all those years in the past.