Paper Towns begins with a prologue that takes place nine years before the events of the novel. When Quentin Jacobsen and Margo Roth Spiegelman are nine years old, they find a dead man in a nearby park. This experience is formative for Quentin and Margo, and forges a vaguely implied but long lasting bond between them.
Most of Paper Towns is set in suburban Orlando, and the main characters are all seniors in high school, just a few weeks away from graduation. In Part One, Margo, a now-popular girl who has not interacted with Quentin since they were nine, shows up at his window one night. She asks him to be her chauffeur for reasons undisclosed. It turns out that Margo has enlisted Quentin to help her with an eleven-part plan to exact revenge against her friends who have wronged her. Margo and Quentin break into friends’ houses and cars creatively, wreaking havoc on these friends. Their night of mischief and revenge culminates with breaking into Sea World.
Part Two outlines the characters’ last few weeks of high school. After Margo and Quentin’s adventure, Margo disappears. However, she has left clues for Quentin, and Quentin is determined to put these clues together to figure out where she has gone. The clue on which Quentin fixates is Margo’s copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, in which she has highlighted specific passages. Quentin enlists his best friends, Ben and Radar, to help him find Margo, and Margo’s friend Lacey joins them. A detective is enlisted to search for Margo, but he is neither helpful nor hopeful that she will be found.
Through her vague clues, Quentin and his friends are led to an old, abandoned minimall in which they find Margo has passed time. Her camp-out in the minimall contains maps and other clues to suggest that Margo has been plotting out her route there. It’s difficult to tell where Margo was planning to go. Quentin begins to look into Margo’s obsession with what she refers to as “paper towns,”or pseudovisions—suburban developments that were abandoned before they could be completely built. Quentin takes short trips to all the pseudovisions he can find in Central Florida to see if she is camping out in one, but does not find her.
Over the course of his search for Margo, Quentin, who hangs out with the band geeks, is able to restore order to the chaos that is the high school social hierarchy, and has earned some respect from the popular crowd. Quentin is more obsessed with finding Margo than his friends are because Margo is the center of Quentin’s universe, and Radar and Ben are more concerned about school, their girlfriends, and prom. On prom night, Quentin, who has no interest in going to prom, plans to spend the night in the abandoned minimall at Margo’s hideout. He falls asleep there, but is awoken to be the designated driver for his friends’ after-prom party. At the party, Quentin observes the gathering as the only sober attendee, which gives him some perspective about the imminent end of high school.
Quentin continues his search, going through the motions of school and final exams with his mind constantly occupied by thoughts about Margo. On the morning of graduation, Quentin discovers that Margo left a clue on a website run by Radar that she is in the “paper town” of Agloe, New York, and she will only be there until May 29th at noon. This gives Quentin only twenty-four hours to get there. Quentin, Radar, Ben, and Lacey skip graduation and race to Agloe in the minivan that Quentin’s parents gifted him for graduation.
Part Three outlines this epic road trip from Central Florida to upstate New York, which Quentin documents hour-by-hour. The road trip is frantic, and they even get into a minor accident, but it is a bonding experience for the four friends. When they arrive in Agloe, Margo acts indifferent and cold towards them. Lacey, Ben, and Radar get angry and leave, but Quentin stays and talks to Margo, who opens up to him. She explains why she feels obligated to cut ties with Orlando and her past, and invites Quentin to go to New York City with her. They kiss. However, Quentin refuses to stay in Margo’s literal and symbolic paper town, and Margo refuses to go back to the emotional chains of her life in Orlando. After they agree to stay in touch, they have an intense moment of connection and then go their separate ways.