When Quentin (narrator) and Margo were just nine-year-old kinds, they found a dead body while playing in the park. While Quentin was scared, Margo behaves bravely and nearly reaches to touch a dead man’s foot. At last, the boy grabs the girl, telling her that they should not stay here anymore; they ride home on their bikes and tell their parents about their upsetting finding. Next day children learn that they had found a suicider’s body. Later in the evening, when Margo comes to Quentin’s window, (which is not too surprising: they are neighbors) these two are musing about the reasons why the man shoot himself. It becomes clear that little Margo Roth Spiegelman undertook a whole research, found some information about the dead man and circumstances that possibly led to his suicide. Finally, she comes up with a suggestion that all strings inside him broke. She refuses to come in and just stares at Quentin. Being nine years older at the moment of narration, he mentions that they just stood there, looking at each other, forever.
Part 1, “The Strings” is dedicated to one special day in Quentin’s life that began in ordinary manner, more or less, but turned out to be the longest day in his life.
We learn that Quentin is a humble and rather unambitious person with two best friends, Ben and Marcus, aka Radar. These two are going to a prom, while Quentin is not too enthusiastic about it. As for Margo Roth Spiegelman, she is now a legendary girl of this school; Quentin quietly adores her and calls his beautiful neighbor a goddess, but it seems that they are not close now and never were, actually. Probably, he is just too shy and too normal for such a legendary girl – and legends about her are numerous and well-known. We see her laughing at sight of Becca hanging on the neck of some basketball player. Quiet and normal school life of Quentin is spoiled only by Chuck Parsons, a school bad boy and bully.
The day goes on like usual: lessons, chatting with friends online, dinner with parents (Quentin has good relations with them), a little homework: usual, boring and loved stuff.
True adventure starts when Margo shows up at Quentin’s window – for the first time since nine years ago when they had that strange conversation about the suicider found in park.
Margo’s face is covered with black makeup. She is determined to do eleven deeds and to fulfill this unusual to-do-list she needs a car and a getaway man. At first Quentin refuses to help her, reminding himself that she has much more closer friends than him, but finally agrees, when Margo mentions that her list has something to do with them and briefly mentions that school bullies left Quentin alone by her request. And now two best neighbors in the world are off, to buy some items and to do some justice.
The grocery list looks a bit weird: 3 catfishes, Veet cream for depilation, a big jar of Vaseline and so on, bunch of tulips included. Cashier notes that this is strange, and this makes Quentin worry again about the whole case: he is sincerely interested in college studies and wants no troubles.
They also visit Wall-Mart and buy a car-locking device called “club”. Margo seems to be exited: she throws witty soliloquys about too much worrying about future, etc., signals the car horn, in spite of Quentin’s pleas not to do it, jokes with a Wall-Mart employee. This is quite understandable: Margo Roth Spiegelman is on her vengeance path.
She tells Quentin that her boyfriend, Jase, and her best friend, Becca, had been cheating on her for several months. Moreover, she learned about it just this morning, so Quentin had misinterpreted the observed scene quite incorrectly.
The vengeance path goes as follows: Jase’s car is successfully blocked and keys for the club end up in Margo’s pocket; Becca’s father is informed about his daughter having adult fun with Jason in their basement (which is true); Jase’s fleeing is immortalized in 18+ photo; Becca gets a harsh chastise; Jase’s clothes are stolen by our brave avengers and Becca’s closet is enriched with specific accessory in form of fish wrapped in her shorts, along with a note a-la Godfather. Plus “M” spray-painted on the wall. Next point is Karen, another friend of Margo, the one who told about Jase’s infidelity and Margo’s reaction was far from calm and polite, so now she offers her apologies in the form of tulips and a letter. Revenge on Jase continues: a fish is thrown through the window (breaking it), “M” is painted on the wall. Lacey Pemberton, or, rather, her backseat, faces the next fish-attack. This time Quentin paints the “M” on the roof of her car, so now he and Margo are true comrades in arms. They touch each-other’s fingers stained by paint, thus sealing their weird collaboration.
After all these heroic deeds our brave avengers climb the stairs of a sky-scraper – thanks to Margo who knows the guard. They admire the view of Orland from above. The city looks beautiful and artificial – even Quentin remarks that this town looks like something made of LEGO construction kit. Margo calls it a paper town where paper people live their paper lives in their paper houses. She points out the fakeness of a lovely sight they see. She also gives a brief bumbled analysis of her relations stating that the last string was broken.
After that comes the time for Quentin’s reward – by Margo’s request he has to select the next victim. Quentin is a humble person, so he cannot find any enemy in his life. Margo suggests Chuck the bully and he agrees. After one bad shot and call to Ben they find Chuck’s house. In course of their visit all doorknobs are carefully greased with Vaseline and Chuck loses his eyebrow when they use depilation cream. Chuck awakes and starts to shout about robbery, so Margo and Quentin take a fast retreat.
They also break into the SeaWorld by simply walking across the moat on its perimeter. While crossing the water obstacle Margo gets bitten by a snake. Quentin frantically tries to suck the venom from her ankle, but the snake turns out to be harmless. After climbing the fence they are caught by a guard. The guard is immediately bribed by a one-hundred-dollar bill, thanks to Margo’s prudence. Best neighbors share a walk and even dance around seal tank.
The night is almost over, so they head home. Margo bids a strange goodbye to Quentin and leaves him in bewildered and confused state of mind.
At the beginning of Part 2, “The Grass”, we learn that next day Margo did not show up at school and is possibly missing. Everyone, including Quentin, realizes it just a day later. Meanwhile, Quentin, inspired by Margo’s boldness, single-handedly and successfully solves the issue of yet another gross action of Chuck, Jase and their cronies – by simply blackmailing Jase.
On the third day Margo is officially missing, so the investigation is launched. The reaction of Margo’s parents is weird enough: they seem to be glad that their daughter is gone and are changing all locks in their house. Quentin’s family is visited by Detective Otis Warren.
Quentin tells everything he knows and, when Detective Warren departs, asks his parents if Margo can stay with them for a while when she will return. His parents, both being psychologists, agree to this. Later, when Ben and Radar visit Quentin for playing videogames, they spot the poster of Woody Guthrie in the window of Margo’s bedroom. This is strange and possibly has something to do with her disappearance, so three friends decide to do some investigation themselves.
They find some clues leading to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and lines in it, highlighted by Margo; a note found inside of Quentin’s door states the address of an abandoned mall; a visit to the place persuades Quentin that Margo probably committed suicide. He even tells the detective about this. When the detective responds not to worry, Quentin does a little bit of research himself and finds that paper towns are another term for pseudovision, a place that was abandoned before the completion of construction, so it is possible that Margo went into some such place to commit suicide. After his teacher’s remark on meaning of Leaves of Grass as glorification of life, Quentin visits the abandoned mall again and this time finds several items that clearly belong to Margo: a nail polish, a blanket, a traveler’s guide and so on.
While he stays there for a night, Ben calls him, asking for help, drunk as a lord. The after-prom party is in the full swing, so it takes some time to get Ben out. Everything there annoys Quentin.
Next day Ben is not fit for their investigation. Quentin speaks to Radar who also contributes in search for Margo but still without any success.
Yet another day three friends and Lacey Pemberton check the abandoned mall again and meet a group of masked “urban explorers”; one of them turns out to be Gus, the guard of SeaWorld. He tells the band that Margo sometimes joined them but preferred sitting and writing in her notebook to exploring. Later Radar finds pin-marks in the wall over Margo’s blanket and everyone tries to understand their location. Quentin finds some booklets dedicated to pseudovisions and decides to check new locations.
New locations bring nothing new. After a party at Radar’s Quentin returns home and, getting angry about failure to find anything about Margo, tears the map from the wall. This solves the mystery of pin holes pattern: once there was a map pinned on the wall of the abandoned mall.
Three friends visit the abandoned mall again and find the map. It is torn and ripped but at least one pin shows some place in New York State, although not in the city. And for now that’s all.
Quentin is so obsessed with Margo now that he is even not too excited about graduation and an important gift that parents give him: a minivan; now he has his own set of keys and can use it anytime without asking his momma’s permission. He tries to figure out how Margo planned her escape route and finds another definition of “paper towns”: these objects are copyright traps used by map-makers to identify possible map plagiarism. This lead to discovery of a paper town of Agloe, New York. Somebody left a comment in article of Omnictionary (Radar’s project resembling Wikipedia) dedicated to this town, informing everyone interested that the population of Agloe will actually be one until May 29, noon. The comment is written in Margo’s specific manner, neglecting the rules of capitals use.
Hurrah! But it’s May 28 and Quentin has 21 hour and 45 minutes to get there and find his dream neighbor.
Radar, Ben and Lacey join Quentin, skipping their graduation ceremony, and the race for Margo finally starts.
Part 3, “The Vessel”, is divided into chapters depicting roughly one hour of this impromptu trip. Three friends and Lacey are packed in the minivan (Quentin’s now) and deal with all advantages of an unplanned journey: lack of food, money, proper clothes (Radar and Ben are wearing their graduation robes and are supposedly naked under them, according to their plan made during the party) and lack of time. Nineteen hours would be enough to reach the city of Agloe but Quentin has to go over the speed limit. Also, there is such a thing as fatigue. They have to sleep in shifts and Quentin and Radar replace each other behind the wheel.
After twelve hours Ben tries to get Quentin more realistic and notes that it is easier to like somebody from the distance, echoing Margo’s words said in the skyscraper. The person in question can be far from the image built in somebody’s imagination. Quentin gets mad about this unexpected lecture and just at this moment they are nearly hitting the cow that happens to be on the road. Ben grabs the wheel and steers the car into the ditch. Miraculously, everyone is alive after this. Heroic but modest Ben goes to the wheel and Quentin can get some rest. The side panel is damaged, and repair would cost three hundred but in Quentin’s opinion it is a small ransom for Margo. While falling asleep he muses about their trip and pure enjoyment of it, so the finding of Margo becomes less and less significant. He sleeps for several hours.
They arrive to Agloe at thirty to noon and see Margo’s car parked in front of a local general store. Margo is inside, she looks dirty and dead-eyes, writing something in her notebook. After asking for five minutes more she finishes her writing and yells at her friends: “What the hell are you doing here?”.
Soon it became clear that she did not want to be found. She makes poignant fun over Lacey being with Ben, so the offended couple and Radar leave.
Quentin and Margo have a confused conversation: Margo swears that she did not want to be found, that she ran away to live the life she wanted and so on. Quentin argues that she left all those clues, so what was her intention? Margo confesses that when she was ten she wrote a detective novel where she, Quentin and a dog were busy investigating cases. She always thought of Quentin as of “paper boy” but after their fantastic night she realized that he was real, fun and magical. So, all those clues were a kind of encouragement for him. Also, she was tired of being a paper girl, so now she tries to find her real self and heads to New York city. It is clear that their roads are quite different now: Quentin wants to come back home. They have a long talk about Walt Whitman and his metaphors and later, in the evening Margo digs a grave where they symbolically bury their younger versions. After that they pack Margo’s stuff in her car, she drives Quentin to the nearby hotel where his friends already stay and bids him a soul-stirring goodbye, promising that she would be in touch.