Ponyboy Curtis is a teenage boy living in Oklahoma. He belongs to a group of marginalized working-class youths who refer to themselves as greasers. This is because of their greasy long hair. A group of Socs attack Ponyboy while he’s walking home alone from a movie. Socs are the rivals of the greasers. They are youths from the wealthy West Side of town. The name Socs is short for Socials. The group that attacks Ponyboy threaten to cut his throat. Some greasers arrive and chase away the bullies, rescuing Ponyboy. These rescuers include Ponyboy’s brothers, Sodapop and Darry. Sodapop is a handsome and charming high-school dropout, and Darry, the oldest brother, has assumed responsibility for his brothers. Their parents are dead: they were killed in a car crash. The other greasers who come to the rescue are Johnny, who is sixteen years old and very sensitive; Dally, a hardened street criminal with a long police record; Steve, who is Sodapop’s best friend; and Two-Bit, the oldest and funniest member of the group.
The following evening, Ponyboy and Johnny accompany Dally to a movie. Their seats are behind two good-looking Soc girls. Dally flirts obnoxiously with the girls. Once Johnny orders Dally to stop bothering the girls, Dally walks away. Ponyboy and Johnny sit with the girls, whose names are Marcia and Cherry. Ponyboy and Cherry find that they have a great deal in common. Two-Bit appears. The three greasers start to walk with the Soc girls to Two-Bit’s house so that he can drive them home. As they make their way to Two-Bit’s house, they come across Rob and Randy. Bob and Randy are the girls’ boyfriends. They are drunk. The girls are compelled to leave with their boyfriends to avoid a fight breaking out between the greaser and the Socs.
Ponyboy gets home late. His brother, Darry, is angry with him. Tired of being scrutinized and criticized, Ponyboy shouts at Darry, and the brothers start fighting. Darry Slaps Ponyboy across the face. Ponyboy leaves and decides to run away. He goes to find Johnny, and the two boys start making their way to the park. They come across Randy and Bob with some Soc boys. The Socs attack Ponyboy and Johnny, and one of them forces Ponyboy’s head under a fountain’s frigid water until the boy blackout. When Ponyboy regains consciousness, he discovers he is lying on the ground next to Johnny, as well as Bob. Bob is dead. Johnny confides in Ponyboy that he (Johnny) killed Bob because the Socs intended to drown Ponyboy.
Ponyboy and Johnny are desperate and terrified. They rush to try to find Dally Winston, the only person they believe might be able to help them. Dally gives them some money and a gun. He directs them to an abandoned church near Windrixville, a neighboring town. They hide in this church for a week, and they dye and cut their hair to disguise themselves. They spend their time discussing poetry and reading Gone with the Wind aloud. Once several days pass, Dally arrives to check on Ponyboy and Johnny. He informs the boys that, since Bob’s death, there has been an escalation of tensions between the greasers and the Socs. A rumble is expected to occur the next night to settle the issues. He tells them that Cherry, who feels she is partly responsible for the death, has been acting as a spy to help the greasers. Johnny surprises Dally by stating his intentions to return and turn himself in.
Dally indicates that he will bring Ponyboy and Johnny back home. However, as the boys depart, they see that the abandoned church where they have been staying has caught fire. They find that some schoolchildren have gone inside. Ponyboy and Johnny rush into the fire to rescue the children. The building’s roof caves in as they are getting the last child through the window. Ponyboy blacks out. When he regains consciousness, he is in an ambulance. He is diagnosed with minor bruises and burns at the hospital. Dally isn’t seriously hurt either, but Johnny’s back was broken when the roof fell in and is in critical condition. Sodapop and Darry arrive to get Ponyboy, and Ponyboy and Darry make up. The next morning, the newspapers declare Ponyboy and Johnny to be heroes. They also say that, as a result of Bob’s death, the police will charge Johnny with manslaughter. The papers also declare that Ponyboy and Johnny will be required to go to juvenile court so that a judge can determine whether they should have to live in a boys’ home.
Two-Bit and Ponyboy go to buy a Coke and see Randy. Randy informs Ponyboy that he is tired of all the fighting and has no plans to get involved with the rumble that evening. When Two-Bit and Ponyboy go to see Johnny in the hospital, they find that he seems weak. Johnny asks Ponyboy to bring him a new copy of Gone with the Wind. Ponyboy and Two-Bit visit Dally, and during their visit with him they notice that he seems much stronger than Johnny. Dally asks if he can borrow Two-Bit’s black-handled switchblade. As Two-Bit and Ponyboy make their way home, they see Cherry. Cherry says she will not visit Johnny because he killed Bob. Ponyboy says she is a traitor. He relents when she explains herself, however.
The greasers defeat the Socs at the rumble. Dally arrives in time for the fight. He has gotten away from the hospital. Once the fight is over, Ponyboy and Dally rush back to see Johnny and discover that he is dying. Dally becomes extremely upset when Johnny dies, losing control and rushing from the room in a frenzied way. Disoriented and dazed, Ponyboy stumbles home late that night. He lets the others know about Johnny’s death. Dally calls to announce that he has robbed a grocery store and the police are searching for him. The greasers rush to find him. They are too late. The police have found Dally, and he raises a gun to them. They shoot and kill him. Ponyboy is overwhelmed by these events, and passes out.
When Ponyboy wakes up, he’s in bed at home. A kick to the head at the rumble has given him a concussion. He has been in bed for several days, delirious. When he recovers, he goes to his hearing. At the hearing, the judge gives him kind treatment and acquits him of being responsible for Bob’s death. It is ruled that Ponyboy will be permitted to stay at home with Darry. For a period, Ponyboy feels empty and listless. His grades suffer, he doesn’t want to eat, and he feels hostile to Darry. Sodapop tells Ponyboy that he is suffering because of the tension at home and feels angry. Tearful, he begs Ponyboy and Darry to call a truce. Ponyboy is finally starting to understand the value of his family, and he says he will no longer fight with Darry. He discovers that for the first time he is able to remember Johnny’s and Dally’s deaths without denial or pain. He decides on telling their story. He starts writing a term paper for his English class at school. It ends up being the novel itself.