Susie Salmon is fourteen years old when she is murdered. After school on December 6th, 1973, Susie walks home from school, cutting through the cornfield which separates her junior high from her neighborhood. Her neighbor George Harvey is waiting in the field, and he invites her to come take a look at something he has built. Harvey opens up a trapdoor in the ground and invites Susie to climb down. Once below the earth, Mr. Harvey remarks on how beautiful Susie is, and urges her to take off her clothes. She and Harvey begin to struggle physically, but Harvey bests her, and throws Susie down on the ground. He begins kissing her, and Susie thinks of her first real kiss—it happened just the other week, with a classmate named Ray Singh. Susie begs Harvey to stop, but he rapes her. After the act is done, Harvey instructs her to tell him that she loves him. Susie does, but “the end [comes] anyway.”
Susie arrives in heaven and finds that everyone’s heaven is different. The dead interact in the spaces where their heavens overlap—Susie soon makes friend with a girl named Holly, who, like Susie, has newly arrived. Franny, their intake counselor, helps the girls adjust to life in heaven, and explains the rules to them—to get what they want, all they have to do is desire it, and understand the reason why. What Susie really wants is to return to Earth, but as she is unable to, she decides to spend her time in heaven watching those she has left behind in order to see whole lives from beginning to end, and understand the secrets of adulthood, love, and life. Back on earth, Susie’s parents, Jack and Abigail, her younger sister, Lindsey, and her four-year-old brother Buckley struggle as Detective Len Fenerman brings them the news that the investigation of Susie’s disappearance has turned into a murder investigation.
Susie explains that when souls leave Earth, they often pass by a still-living person. When Susie left Earth, she passed by a classmate of hers, a loner named Ruth Connors. Ruth, attempting to reckon with the experience of what has happened to her, becomes obsessed with finding out as much as she can about Susie. As Ruth’s preoccupation with Susie deepens, so too does Susie’s own preoccupation with her memories of her brief time on Earth. Propelled by her longing for her family, Susie is finally able to “break through” and reveal herself to her father one morning as he smashes his collection of ships-in-bottles—a craft he and Susie used to do together. Susie reveals herself to him in the shards of glass, and she and Jack both realize that the line between the living and the dead is not so stark or final after all.
On the outskirts of Norristown there is a sinkhole, which a family owns and operates by charging people to dump their old appliances and furniture. Mr. Harvey dumps a safe containing Susie’ remains into the sinkhole. As Mr. Harvey walks back to his car, he feels Susie’s charm bracelet in his jacket pocket. He stops off on the way home at the site of an under-construction industrial park and throws the bracelet into the bottom of a man-made pond. Harvey keeps one charm from the bracelet—a Pennsylvania keystone, engaged with Susie’s initials—as a kind of trophy. Weeks later, Mr. Harvey feels a familiar itch to build something. Jack passes by Harvey’s house, and notices him building a kind of tent in the yard. Jack stops by and offers to help Harvey—Harvey, lying, explains that it is a bridal tent he constructs each year in memory of his late wife. Harvey apologizes for Jack’s loss, and as it begins to snow, the two men set to work. Once the structure is finished, Jack accuses Harvey of knowing something about Susie’s murder. Harvey retreats into the tent and explains that all of the neighbors have just seen Jack helping him to build something—in the eyes of the casual observer, the two are friends.
Back at home, Jack places a call to Len Fenerman and says that he believes Harvey knows something about Susie’s death. The next day, Len Fenerman visits George Harvey at his home. After the visit, Len calls Jack and tells him that he found nothing. On Christmas Day, as the Salmons solemnly open their presents, one of Lindsey’s classmates, Samuel Heckler, comes by to give her a present. Susie watches both joyously and jealously as her sister receives her first kiss.
Weeks after Susie’s disappearance, Ruth begins walking through the cornfield each morning. Ray Singh, also preoccupied by Susie’s death, begins joining Ruth on these walks, and they bond over their shared feelings of loneliness and their mutual obsession with Susie. One afternoon, Jack goes over to the Singh home—he wants to talk to Ray about Susie. Jack converses with Ray’s mother Ruana. He confesses his theory about Harvey to her, and Ruana tells Jack that if it were her child, she would wait until she was absolutely sure of their murderer, then would find a quiet way and kill that person.
On the morning of Susie’s memorial, Lindsey frets over what to wear, and ultimately ends up going into Susie’s closet to pick out a dress. Grandma Lynn, in town for a visit, helps her, and the family all go together to the memorial. At the church, friends and neighbors have gathered to say goodbye to Susie. Len Fenerman is there, standing by the door and planning to watch those who come and go from the service for any suspicious activity. Toward the end of the memorial, Lindsey sees George Harvey standing just outside the church, looking in. Lindsey faints and in the commotion, Harvey slips away.
Months later, Lindsey, Ruth, and Samuel all attend a summer camp for gifted students. Ruth attempts to ask Lindsey about Susie, despite Lindsey’s desire to break out of her role as the dead girl’s sister and make friends on her own terms. The final week of the symposium always concludes in a camp-wide competition. This year, the challenge is devising a plan for how to commit the perfect murder. Lindsey is rattled by the news, and she and Samuel retreat down to the lake. Beneath a rowboat, the two of them have sex for the first time, and Susie watches with envy as Lindsey has a positive and joyful sexual experience. As Susie watches Lindsey and Samuel make love, she remarks that “How to Commit the Perfect Murder” is an oft-played game in heaven, and that she always chooses an icicle because the weapon melts away.
Back in Norristown, Mr. Harvey has been very careful not to draw attention to himself. Jack remains convinced he is Susie’s killer, and has been making calls to the police all summer to report his theories. One day, Len arrives at the Salmon house to tell Jack to stop calling about Harvey. That night, while up in his study, Jack sees a beam of light out his window, traveling toward the cornfield. Believing that it is Harvey, Jack grabs a baseball bat downstairs and heads out to the cornfield. There, he finds not Harvey, but Susie’s friend Clarissa—in a moment of delusion, believing Clarissa to be Susie herself, Jack leaps toward Clarissa. Clarissa’s boyfriend Brian Nelson jumps out of the corn and begins beating Jack with his own bat. Jack is admitted to the hospital and sent into surgery. Early the following morning, Abigail arrives at the hospital—she puts a call through to the police, and asks if Len Fenerman is available to join her at the hospital. When Len arrives, the two of them go outside for a cigarette. As the two of them talk about their respective losses—Abigail’s daughter and Len’s wife—the air between them becomes charged, and Abigail kisses Len.
In the fall of 1974, Lindsey returns to junior high. As the school year begins she is now known not just as the sister of the dead girl, but as the daughter of the town crackpot—news of Jack’s mishap in the field has begun to spread. As the first anniversary of Susie’s death approaches, Lindsey asks her father whether he is still convinced that Mr. Harvey is responsible for Susie’s murder, and Jack tells her that there is no doubt in his mind. One afternoon, Lindsey heads for George Harvey’s house. She breaks into his basement and begins searching the house. In Harvey’s bedroom, Lindsey finds a sketchbook. Flipping through it, she finds a schematic for an underground structure to be built in the cornfield behind the junior high. Mr. Harvey arrives home, and, hearing movement upstairs, goes to his bedroom. He enters just as Lindsey jumps out of the second-story window, and he watches her run back to her own house. Jack, now in possession of the sketch Lindsey stole, phones the police and asks for Len Fenerman, but Len is unavailable. Susie reveals that Len is with her mother—the two of them are having sex while George Harvey, having thrown the police off his case once again, packs his belongings and leaves town.
On the anniversary of Susie’s death, Ruth and Ray take some candles out to the cornfield to memorialize her. To their surprise, when they arrive, several of the Salmons’ neighbors have already begun to gather there. Lindsey, at home in the living room, looks out the window and sees the gathering in the cornfield. She wants to go, but Abigail does not, expressing her desire to move on. Lindsey asks Abigail if she is going to leave their family, and Abigail promises she will not.
In the summer of 1975, Abigail leaves, drives out to California, and takes a job at a winery. That fall, Grandma Lynn comes to stay. In December of 1975, over a year has passed since Mr. Harvey packed up and left, but there has been no sign of him. Lindsey goes to the police station to confront Fenerman about why no one can turn up Harvey—on his desk, she spots one of her mother’s scarves, and realizes that the two of them had been having an affair. In the fall of 1976, Len Fenerman visits the evidence room to add a new piece of evidence to Susie’s file—a Coke bottle bearing Susie’s and Harvey’s fingerprints, recently dug up in the middle of the cornfield. Fenerman laments the fact that Jack was right all along. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, a hunter turns up Susie’s Pennsylvania keystone charm—along with the bones of a child’s foot. Ray attends school at University of Pennsylvania, and studies medicine; Ruth moves to New York City, where she spends her days walking the streets, nursing her “second sight” for places where girls and women have been murdered in the past. Mr. Harvey is “living wild” along the Northeast Corridor, occasionally returning to Norristown under cover of darkness to drive through his old neighborhood. As more and more bodies connected to Harvey are turned up throughout the Northeast, Len compiles evidence.
Lindsey and Samuel have just graduated from college. As they ride Samuel’s motorcycle home from the ceremony, it begins to rain, and the two seek shelter in an old, run-down Victorian house. Samuel marvels at the details, and announces that he wants to move into the house and restore it—he wants Lindsey by his side, and he proposes marriage to her. She accepts. Ruth, in New York City, receives a call from her father—the sinkhole at the edge of Norristown is slated to close. Ruth plans to make a “pilgrimage” home to see the hole one last time before it closes. Back in Norristown, Jack has a heart attack. Susie selfishly wishes for Jack to die, so that he can join her in heaven; down on Earth, Buckley begs Susie to let Jack live. Abigail, at the winery, receives news of an emergency—she calls the local hospital in Norristown and learns that Jack has had a heart attack. She boards a flight home. At the hospital, Abigail and Jack reunite, and Susie watches happily.
Susie watches as Ruth and Ray, both back home in Norristown, head out to the sinkhole to say farewell to it. Meanwhile, Len arrives at the hospital and gives Jack the keystone charm. Mr. Harvey has returned to town. As he winds through his old neighborhood, he becomes haunted by the memories of all the women he has killed, and Susie watches as their spirits fill his car. Ruth and Ray arrive at the sinkhole and stand at its edge for a few moments. Ruth spots Harvey’s car driving by, and becomes overwhelmed when her “second sight” allows her to see all of the spirits clinging to the vehicle—she faints in the road. Susie suddenly tips forward and falls to Earth. Susie inhabits Ruth’s body while Ruth’s soul pushes up to heaven. Susie is overjoyed to be back on Earth—and especially to be in Ray’s arms. Susie, feeling bold, suggests they go rest at Samuel’s older brother Hal’s bike shop just across the train tracks. Susie uses a spare key to let the two of them into the apartment over the shop, and Ray begins to suspect that something has happened to Ruth. Susie disrobes and takes a shower, and asks Ray to join her. Realizing that, despite the impossibility of the situation, Susie has fallen to Earth and taken up residence in Ruth’s body, Ray joins Susie in the shower and makes love to her. Afterwards, Susie feels herself being pulled back to heaven. Ruth returns to her own body, after having received a warm welcome up in heaven for her tireless work on behalf of murdered women and children.
Jack Salmon is discharged from the hospital, and Susie watches as Lindsey, Abigail, and Buckley bring him home. Ruana and Ray attempt to leave a fresh-baked pie on the doorstep, but Abigail opens the door and invites them in. As their extended family sits in the living room, Samuel mentions his desire to restore the old Victorian house several miles away—Ray remarks that Ruth’s father owns the property. Susie, who had been hovering in the living room, leaves and returns to heaven.
Lindsey and Samuel marry and begin restoring the house. Ray becomes a doctor, but finds himself believing in the fuzzy border between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Ruth, still in New York City, is attempting to write the story of her and Susie. One day, Susie spots Mr. Harvey in a diner in New Hampshire—he is stalking a young woman. Outside the diner, at the edge of a sharp embankment which leads down to a ravine below, Harvey attempts to engage the woman in conversation, but she rebuffs him. An icicle falls from the diner’s overhang and strikes Harvey, knocking him off balance and into the ravine. Back in Norristown, a man shows his wife a charm bracelet he found on the ground earlier that day, and his wife remarks that the little girl it belongs to must be all grown up by now.