Quentin Jacobsen is a high school senior preparing to graduate. While his friends, Ben and Radar, think about partying, prom dates and sex, Quentin pines for his beautiful, elusive neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman. As kids, Quentin and Margo were friends who shared the traumatic experience of finding a dead man in the park. As they grew older, Margo became popular while Quentin hung out with kids in band who weren’t popular.
Late one night, a few weeks before graduation, Margo appears at Quentin’s bedroom window. She tells him she’s chosen him as her accomplice for a night of mayhem and payback. Quentin drives his parents’ minivan and helps Margo. She wants revenge. Her boyfriend, Jason, and her friend Becca have been secretly sleeping together. Margo also wants to target her friends who didn’t share their knowledge of Jason’s dalliance with Becca with her.
Quentin and Margo break up Becca and Jason’s midnight sexual encounter by calling Becca’s parents and telling them who is in their daughter’s room. They put a lock on Jason’s steering wheel so he’s stuck on the street, nearly naked, after running from Becca’s house. They also break into homes and cars, leaving raw fish inside and vandalizing property. At the end of the evening, Margo and Quentin break into SeaWorld just for kicks. She takes him to the top of a tower in the city and talks cryptically about the paper towns below.
The next day, Margo disappears. She has run away from home before on several occasions. But as the days pass, Quentin is convinced that this time is different. He also believes she’s leaving him clues to help him find her. Aided by Margo’s sister, Quentin gets into Margo’s room. He looks through her maps and guidebooks, and he finds potential clues in song lyrics and her highlighted copy of the poem “Leaves of Grass.”
He spends the next week and a half trying to follow her trail, which leads first to an abandoned strip mall. The more he reads the Walt Whitman poem, the more he fears Margo plans to kill herself. Poring over her maps and seeing a clue posted online, he finally determines she’s gone to New York and will only be there until the night after graduation. He learns the term paper towns was once used to describe fictitious cities some map companies included on their products.
If the paper town showed up on another company’s map, the mapmakers would know their designs had been stolen. Quentin finds one such paper town called Agloe on Margo’s route. He reads that Agloe consists only of a defunct general store.
Quentin plots out the trip and discovers he can just make it in time to save her if he drives above the speed limit all the way with minimal stops. Ben, Radar and Ben’s girlfriend, Lacey, also ditch graduation to make the epic 19-hour road trip with him. They subsist on energy drinks and junk food while taking shifts at the wheel and making carefully timed pit stops.
Quentin and his friends find Margo living in the abandoned Agloe General Store. His investigation into her disappearance and his road trip have taught him to push through his fears, follow his heart and see people for who they are rather than who everyone wants them to be. When Margo sees the courageous side of Quentin, and when she realizes he can see her for more than her popular façade, she asks him to travel with her. They kiss and bury Margo’s journal, symbolizing the burial of the people they once were. Quentin ultimately decides he can’t go with her and forfeit his entire future, but they promise to remain in touch and meet again.