Paper Towns Plot Summary

Paper Towns follows a group of high school students as they follow clues, tracking down their friend Margo.

Paper Towns is perhaps best known for its movie spin-off, but before it became a movie it was a novel by John Green. Below, readers can find a chapter by chapter summary of the novel as well as a “spoiler-free” version that doesn’t reveal anything crucial to the novel.

Paper Towns Plot Summary


Spoiler-free Summary

Quentin Jacobsen becomes estranged from his childhood friend due to a traumatic incident. But he never stops thinking about her. Flash forward to the current day and after years apart she knocks on his window to invite him to help her on a revenge mission. Quentin believes this will improve his relationship with Margo, but instead, she disappears. Quentin and his friends, Ben and Radar, plus Margo’s best friend, Lacey, go on a road trip to try and hunt Margo down.

Summary

Spoiler alert: important details of the novel are revealed below.


The Prologue

The prologue describes the young versions of Margo and Quentin playing in the park. They discover a dead body. Quentin’s instinct is to run away, but Margo is curious and examines the body. The kid’s parents call the police, but Margo investigates the “case” in order to find out why he died. It becomes clear that the man committed suicide following a divorce.

Part 1 – Chapter One

Much of this chapter is introduces readers to the central characters. This includes Quentin’s two best friends, Ben and Radar. They are both members of the school band. They discuss prom dates, and Ben gets irritated by the fact Radar has a date and he doesn’t. Q gets distracted when he sees Margo with her boyfriend, Jason.

There is a nice subplot with Radar’s prom date, Angela questioning why she has never been invited to meet Radar’s parents. (This is because they have the world’s largest collection of black Santa’s.) Q goes home, and later that evening, having not spoken for years, Margo shows up at his bedroom window.

Part 1 – Chapter Two

Margo is decked out in all black and asks Q to come with her as she needs a driver. She promises him that he will not be required to break any laws. It takes some convincing, but Q agrees to take Margo in his parent’s minivan. Margo promises it will be the best night of his life.

Part 1 – Chapter Three

They go to a shopping mall and purchase a very strange selection of items including catfish, spray paint, and a security bar for locking one’s steering wheel. Q questions why they need these things, and Margo diverts his attention by flirting.

Part 1 – Chapter Four

Margo confesses that her boyfriend, Jason, has been sleeping with Becca who is supposed to be her best friend. Their first task is to attach the steering lock to the steering wheel of Jason’s car (he always leaves it unlocked). They then travel to Becca’s house and call Becca’s dad to let him know that Becca and Jason are having sex in the basement. Jason tries to escape naked from a window, but Quentin takes a picture of him.

The pair then sneak into Becca’s room and wrap a bunch of fish up in paper. On the paper is a message for Becca. They also spray paint an M on the wall. When they try to leave, they are caught by Becca’s father, who chases them with a shotgun. They escape, and Q is anxious. While he calms down, Margo paints her nails.

Part 1 – Chapter Five

Margo and Q leave an apology note for Karin. Margo had insulted her when she’d told Margo about Jason and Becca. Then, they travel to Jason’s house armed with a fish covered with a note for Jason. Jason’s house has a hi-tech security setup. Margo tosses the fish through a window, breaking it in the process, and sprays an M before the pair escape once more.

Now they visit Lacey, who didn’t tell Margo about Jason cheating. Once again, a fish with a message is used—this time in the backseat of Lacey’s car. Then Margo and Quentin both spray and M on top of the car.

Part 1 – Chapter Six

The pair drive to downtown Orlando and visit the SunTrust building. Margo is friends with the security guard who lets them in. They climb to the top of the building to take in the view. She describes Orlando as a “paper town” because it is flimsy and fake.

Part 1 – Chapter Seven

This time it is Quentin’s turn to get revenge on somebody. He cannot think of anybody, so Margo suggests Chuck, who is a bit of a school bully and was mean to him. Their plan is to use hair-removing cream on one of his eyebrows and Vaseline on all the doorknobs, so he can’t escape. Having done this, Margo informs him that their last mission is to break into SeaWorld.

Part 1 – Chapter Eight

Q does not want to break into SeaWorld, but once again, Margo convinces him. After breaking in, they are discovered by a security guard, but Margo bribes him. The pair share a dance to the ambient music piped into the theme park.

Part 1 – Chapter Nine

They drive home, and Margo tells Q to use the picture of Jason wisely. She tells him she will miss hanging out with him. Q says they can hang out at school but Margo tells him that isn’t possible before climbing back into her window.

Part 2 – Chapter One

Q’s mum wakes him up after only an hour of sleep. He goes to school tired and notices that Chuck only has one eyebrow. Margo’s car is not there. On his way home, he opens up and tells his friends about what he did the night before. They realize that Margo’s car isn’t in her driveway either.

Part 2 – Chapter Two

Margo still isn’t in school the next day, and as a result, there is a spate of bullying incidents. Quentin uses the photo of Jason to quell the bullying.

Part 2 – Chapter Three

The next morning when Quentin awakes he discovers Margo’s parents and a detective, as well as his own parents around his table. They quiz him over when he last saw Margo. He lies and only relays information about her coming to the window. Later in the chapter, he talks to the detective privately and relays the whole story. The detective tells him not to worry. Margo’s parents are more annoyed than concerned, and as a result, Q’s parents later suggest she must have a difficult home life. Later, the boys discover what they think is a clue in Margo’s window.

Part 2 – Chapter Four

The boys go over to Margo’s house when her parents are out and bribe her little sister in order to examine Margo’s room. While there, they find more clues that seemingly point in the direction of a Walt Whitman poem. It appears she has also been editing Omnictionary ( a fictional version of Wikipedia).

Part 2 – Chapter Five

Lacey approaches the boys and quizzes Q on Margo’s whereabouts. Lacey mentions that she may be in New York. Lacey is upset because she didn’t know about Jason and Becca’s affair and mentions she even dumped her boyfriend because he knew and didn’t tell her. Knowing she no longer has a boyfriend, Ben asks her out, and she surprisingly says yes. Q obsesses over the poem and Radar points out that only one of the lines is highlighted in a different color. It is a line about removing a door, so this is what they decide to do.

Part 2 – Chapter Six

They try removing Margo’s door and find nothing. Ben suggests that Q should just fly to New York to try and find Margo and ask her to prom. Quentin says he won’t, as it will mess with his routine. He starts to wonder if his routines hold him back.

Part 2 – Chapter Seven

Q tells his parents about the clues, but they aren’t interested and suggest he leave Margo to take care of herself and focuses on his own life. Ben calls Lacey which makes Q sad, mostly because even though he is not too worried about the prom he would like to find Margo before then. Realizing that the clues have been left for him, he decides to take his own door down and discovers a note with an address on it. He and the boys decide to skip school to visit the address.

Part 2 – Chapter Eight

They follow the address, and it is an abandoned mini-mall. Quentin is frightened because the place smells like death. He panics and wants to call the police, but he is convinced that they need to check it out first.

Part 2 – Chapter Nine

Eventually, they enter the building. Q is still concerned that Margo might have taken her life (despite discovering the smell was a dead raccoon). Once inside, they find what might be new clues. One of which is writing on the wall suggesting that Margo might have gone to a paper town. Q thinks the handwriting is Margo’s.

Part 2 – Chapter Ten

Q is so concerned for Margo that he speaks to the detective and tells him about the clues. The detective tells him to leave it alone that Margo can take care of herself. However, Q is still worried and so decides to check out nearby pseudovisions (paper towns). He doesn’t find anything helpful just an old oak tree which reminds him of the tree where he and Margo discovered the body.

Part 2 – Chapter Eleven

Lacey is upset when Q shares his concerns that Margo has taken her own life. They approach a teacher who explains that if you read the entire Whitman poem it’s actually about valuing life. This does not convince Q who is irritated at Ben and Radar for getting excited about prom and not worrying about Margo. He borrows his parent’s car under the guise of going to pick up a tux and visits more pseudovisions. Again he finds nothing.

Part 2 – Chapter Twelve

Q goes to the minimall with Ben and Radar to look for clues and find that somebody had been staying there. They find Margo’s nail varnish with blue spray paint on it and conclude it was her. Q tells his parents he is staying at Ben’s and camps there overnight, hoping to see Margo. He reads through the poem and vows to find more clues and then does in the form of travel guides.

Part 2 – Chapter Thirteen

Q gets a late-night call to collect Ben, who is very drunk at an after-prom party. He collects him, and while there, they walk in on Jason and Becca making out. Jason accidentally calls Becca “Margo,” and Becca loses her temper. Q goes to the bathroom and sees a very upset Lacey, despondent because Becca told everyone she has an STD. They discuss Margo, and Lacey confesses she, too, thinks that Margo is dead. Q takes everybody home.

Part 2 – Chapter Fourteen

Q is annoyed with Ben and Radar because he feels like they aren’t helping him search for Margo. Radar talks to Q and explains he has been searching for her online. Q feels guilty and decides to patch things up with Ben.

Part 2 – Chapter Fifteen

Q looks for more clues and comes to the realization that Margo is just a human girl.

Part 2 – Chapter Sixteen

Q, Ben, Radar, and Lacey all go to the mini-mall. They see Gus there with some friends. (Gus is the security guard that Margo knew). Ben gets in a fight with one of them, defending Lacey’s honor. They speculate why there are pinholes in the wall. They then go through the travel brochures. Q takes notes of a bunch of subdivisions, so he can visit them alone.

Part 2 – Chapter Seventeen

Ben organizes at his place because his parents are heading out of town to buy the world’s second-largest collection of black Santa’s. They go to the party and discuss how the boys are all going to be naked under their graduation robes. When Q returns home, he gets so frustrated with his search that he rips his maps off the wall. He realizes that the pinholes at the mini-mall were probably points in a map.

Part 2 – Chapter Eighteen

Q and Radar head back to the mini-mall and find a map with pinholes in. They manage to make out some of the locations she may have gone to and so they contact Lacey and Radar.

Part 2 – Chapter Nineteen

Ben and Lacey have a theory that Margo will return from graduation as that will give her enough time to have visited everywhere on the map and to return again. On his way back from school Q runs away from the place, knowing he will be leaving school forever he feels liberated. He theorizes that’s how Margo must have felt.

Part 2 – Chapter Twenty

Q is given his parent’s minivan as a graduation gift. Later that day, Radar finds a post on omnictionary that must be from Margo. It points to her being in a “paper town” called Agloe in New York, but the entry suggests they only have 24 hours to get her. Q alongside Lacey, Radar, and Ben all decide to go on a road trip to see if they can find her, even though getting there and back may mean they miss their graduation.

Part 3 – Hour 1

Everybody lets their parents know what they are doing, and they set off. Radar is in charge of managing time and Ben needs to use the toilet but they don’t really have the time.

Part 3 – Hour 2

They play games and Ben and Lacey flirt. Q speeds past a police car, but they are lucky not to get pulled over.

Part 3 – Hour 3

Ben’s need to use the toilet takes over and he ends up having to pee into empty beer bottles. Everyone is disgusted by him, but soon after, he needs to go again.

Part 3 – Hour 4

To maximize their stop and not fall behind, Lacey makes a solid plan where everybody plays a role. They pull over at the gas station and pull off the plan with 4 seconds left to spare.

Part 3 – Hour 5

They sort through the provisions they have purchased. Lacey complains about the lack of healthy snacks. They realize the T-shirts that they brought have confederate flags on them.

Part 3 – Hour 6

They play more games in the car.

Part 3 – Hour 7

They all start to get tired, so they take turns sleeping using sleeping pills.

Part 3 – Hour 8

Q manages to take over driving without them having to stop. He also manages to urinate into an empty bottle without stopping while driving at 70 miles per hour.

Part 3 – Hour 9

Q and Radar get twitchy from too many energy drinks.

Part 3 – Hour 10

They plan in their second stop but are not quite as slick and lose a minute.

Part 3 – Hour 11

They have an unplanned break when Lacey and Ben need to use the toilet.

Part 3 – Hour 12

Q and Ben are the only ones awake. Ben talks with Q about Margo and tries to lower his expectations but only succeeds in winding Q up. Q loses concentration momentarily and spots a cow in the road. Ben swerves to avoid hitting the cow, and the car spins into the shoulder. By some miracle, everyone is pretty much unscathed. Ben panics and flees the car when he hears a dripping noise, assuming it is petrol, but it is just beer. Q thanks Ben for saving all their lives, and Ben takes over the driving.

Part 3 – Hour 13

They discuss Ben’s heroics, but he downplays it.

Part 3 – Hour 14

They do their best to clean the inside of the car which is a mess following their near-miss accident. They discuss how it will probably cost about 300 dollars to fix, Q states that that’s a small price to pay for finding Margo.

Part 3 – Hour 15

Q starts to nod off and realizes how much he has enjoyed the trip. He thinks to himself how the four of them could all hang out in New York even if they don’t find Margo. This shows that Q is starting to grow as a person and seeing the bigger picture.

Part 3 – Hours 16, 17, and 18

Quentin sleeps.

Part 3 – Hour 19

Q wakes up to find his friends debating what the car should be called.

Part 3 – Hour 20

Another hour of games and singing.

Part 3 – Hour 21

They arrive close by to their location with half an hour to spare. They begin discussing everything they know about Margo to try and pinpoint her.

Part 3 – Agloe

They drive around looking for Margo and finally spot her car. They enter an old barn, and she is hunched over a table writing in a book. She carries on writing and after a few minutes finally closes the book and asks why they are all there. They get into an argument when Margo tells them they should not have come to find her. Margo explains why she left. She tells Q that she had been planning it since she was young and was going to do it earlier until she had discovered about Jason, which shifted her plan back.

She explained that she only left the clues at the last minute because she hadn’t realized how cool Q was. She had assumed he was a “paper boy.” She left the clues so Q wouldn’t worry. Q explained he was worried about Margo committing suicide. Margo talks to him about how she had felt that way but couldn’t.

Margo calls her family to let them know she is safe. Q and Margo fall asleep together and the next morning they symbolically bury mini versions of themselves to signify letting go of the past. Q and Margo kiss. She says he can join her in New York, but Q does not want to leave his life behind. Margo and Q go back to Q’s motel, and Margo says goodbye to the rest of the gang and promises to stay in touch.

FAQs

What is the main plot of Paper Towns?

It is a coming-of-age story that follows Q and his search for Margo. He learns a great deal about life and himself on this quest.

Why is the book titled Paper Towns?

The term “paper towns” refers to a place that’s fake and as flimsy as paper. It was coined by one of the main characters, Margo. She uses it to describe Orlando.

Why did Margo leave clues?

Margo left clues so that Q wouldn’t worry about her. She decided to after she realized that Q was cool and not a “paper boy.”

About Lee-James Bovey
Lee-James, a.k.a. LJ, has been a Book Analysis team member since it was first created. During the day, he's an English Teacher. During the night, he provides in-depth analysis and summary of books.
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