The play takes place in the farmhouse of John and Minnie Wright on the day after John Wright is found strangled in his bed. Minnie Wright has been arrested and taken into custody, so the house has been empty for a day. The Sheriff, Henry Peters, and the County Attorney, George Henderson, have just arrived at the house to investigate the crime scene. They are accompanied by Lewis Hale, the neighbor who discovered John Wright’s body, and his wife, Mrs. Hale. The Sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters, has also come to collect a change of clothes and a few of Minnie’s belongings to take to her in jail. The house is very cold inside because the previous night's temperature had dipped below zero, and the fire had gone out. The Sheriff explains that he sent one of his men early in the morning to light the fire so that the group wouldn’t freeze during the investigation, but he assures the County Attorney that the man didn’t disturb any evidence.  

The County Attorney questions Mr. Hale about how he discovered John Wright’s body. Mr. Hale explains that he stopped by to try to persuade John Wright to buy into a party line telephone. Upon arriving, he found Minnie sitting in her rocking chair and acting “queer.” When Mr. Hale asked to speak to John, Minnie replied matter-of-factly that John was dead and pointed upstairs. Mr. Hale took another man up to the bedroom, where they found John in bed, strangled with a rope around his neck. When they asked Minnie how John was killed, she claimed not to know because she “sleeps soundly.” Mr. Hale decided to call the Sheriff and the coroner, which didn’t seem to upset Minnie. However, when Mr. Hale mentioned to Minnie that he had come to ask John about installing a telephone, Minnie suddenly burst out laughing. Once the Sheriff and coroner arrived, Minnie was arrested and taken to jail.  

The County Attorney seems satisfied with Mr. Hale’s story and announces that they will begin searching around the property for any signs of a motive. He looks around the kitchen briefly and concludes that Minnie must be a poor housekeeper because it is quite a mess, with unwashed dishes, dirty towels, and bread sitting outside the breadbox. Mrs. Hale defends Minnie’s housekeeping, quipping that there is quite a lot of work to do on a farm besides cleaning up after men, who aren’t always so tidy. The County Attorney jokes that Mrs. Hale is “loyal to her sex” and asks if she is friends with Minnie. Mrs. Hale replies that she has not visited Minnie in more than a year, partly because she felt uncomfortable around John Wright.  

While looking in a cupboard, the County Attorney discovers that several jars of canned fruit have exploded, making a sticky mess. Mrs. Peters remarks that when she spoke with Minnie in jail, she had been worried about the jars exploding in the cold. The men laugh at the irony of Minnie worrying over her preserves when she has been accused of murder. Mr. Hale remarks that “women are used to worrying over trifles.” The men soon decide that there is no important evidence in the kitchen and resolve to search the bedroom and the barn instead, leaving the two women alone. Before going upstairs, the County Attorney tells Mrs. Peters that he will want to inspect everything she decides to take to Minnie, and he asks the women to “keep an eye out” for anything that might help the case.  

Once the men leave, Mrs. Hale expresses her displeasure with the way the men have criticized Minnie’s housekeeping. Mrs. Peters, who had not previously known Minnie, replies that the men are only doing their jobs. As the women collect Minnie’s things, they notice little clues about what Minnie was doing before she was taken away. Mrs. Hale says Minnie keeps to herself and rarely goes out anymore, but she recalls how vibrant and outgoing Minnie was before she married, when she wore fancy clothes and sang in a choir. Suddenly, Mrs. Hale asks Mrs. Peters if she thinks Minnie is really the murderer. Mrs. Peters softly replies that her husband, the Sheriff, seems convinced of Minnie’s guilt, but the County Attorney thinks they must find evidence of a motive to convince a jury. Mrs. Hale insists that she sees no signs of a motive and does not believe Minnie is guilty.  

The women turn their attention to a half-finished quilt that Minnie was sewing. Just as the men are returning, Mrs. Hale wonders aloud if Minnie planned to “quilt it or just knot it.” The Sheriff repeats the phrase derisively, mocking the women for talking about the quilt. All the men laugh before going outside to inspect the barn. After the men leave, Mrs. Hale complains about the Sheriff’s comment, and Mrs. Peters apologetically replies that the men have important things on their minds. The women then notice that one section of the quilt is poorly sewn, unlike the rest. As Mrs. Hale wonders aloud what could have led to such “nervous” sewing, she begins ripping stitches out and repairing them. Mrs. Peters says they probably shouldn’t be touching anything, but she doesn’t stop Mrs. Hale.  

Then Mrs. Peters finds a birdcage in a cabinet. The cage door appears to have been violently ripped off, and there is no sign of a bird. Mrs. Hale speculates that Minnie must have bought a canary, which reminds her of how Minnie herself used to sing like a pretty bird before she got married. Mrs. Hale is overcome with regret for not visiting Minnie more often. She realizes how lonely Minnie must have been being married to a cold man like John Wright, and she concludes that Minnie probably bought the bird to keep her company.  

The two women decide they will take the quilt to Minnie in jail so she can finish it. As they are looking for sewing material, they discover a red box with the body of the dead bird inside. The bird’s neck is broken, and the women realize someone has strangled it. Just then, the men return, and Mrs. Hale hides the box with the dead bird under the quilt. The County Attorney mockingly asks if the women have decided whether Minnie was going to “quilt it or knot it.” Then he notices the birdcage and asks what happened to the bird. Mrs. Hale suggests that the cat must have got it, even though no cat is in the house. But the County Attorney is too distracted to challenge her lie and quickly leaves to talk to the Sheriff about something else.  

Alone again, the women continue their conversation. Mrs. Peters recalls how angry she felt as a young girl when a cruel boy killed her pet kitten right in front of her. Mrs. Hale says she knows John Wright killed the bird. Mrs. Peters, becoming emotional, insists they do not know who killed the bird or John Wright. Mrs. Hale laments how lonely Minnie must have felt when John killed her bird, especially since she had no children. Mrs. Peters then shares that she herself went through a very lonely time after her first baby died. But she still insists that the law must punish crimes like the murder of John Wright.  

The men return again, having found no clues of a motive. The Sheriff asks the County Attorney if he wants to look at the things Mrs. Peters has packed to take to Minnie. The County Attorney laughs when he sees Minnie’s apron and quilt and quickly concludes that they are “not very dangerous things.” Then he jokes that he doesn’t need to supervise Mrs. Peters because, as the Sheriff’s wife, she is “married to the law.” Mrs. Peters bristles at the joke. The men leave the room momentarily, and Mrs. Hale hides the bird’s body in her pocket. As the play ends, the County Attorney sarcastically remarks that at least they managed to determine how Minnie Wright was going to finish her quilt. He turns to the women to remind him of the correct quilting term. With her hand over her pocket, Mrs. Hale responds that Minnie was going to “knot it.”