We first meet fourteen-year-old Ponyboy on a Friday afternoon, in the fall, as he's walking home from the movies. He recently lost both of his parents, and lives with his two older brothers, Darrel (who's twenty) and Sodapop (who's seventeen). We quickly learn that it's not safe for Pony to walk home alone. Boys who live on the East Side of town, Greasers, are targets for rich Socials, a gang of boys from the West Side. Ponyboy gets attacked just minutes from his home, but his brothers and the other four members of his gang (Two-Bit, Steve, Dallas, and Johnny) come to the rescue and run the Socials off before Ponyboy is seriously injured.
The initial situation introduces one of the novel's driving conflicts, the rivalry between the Greasers and the Socials (Socs). In this stage, we encounter Ponyboy's personal conflict. Since their parents died, and his twenty-year-old brother Darrel started working all the time to support them, he's always on Ponyboy's case! Ponyboy, a good student, and an athlete to boot, feels like everything he does is wrong in Darry's eyes. This conflict is introduced when Darry gets mad at Pony for walking home alone.
In this stage, both the rivalry with the Socs as well as Pony's struggle with Darrel become much more complicated. On Saturday night, after Ponyboy and Johnny hang out with two Social girls (Cherry and Marcia) they met at the movies, they fall asleep in the vacant lot in their neighborhood for a while, so Pony gets home really late. Darry, who has been up worrying about his brother, hits him (for the first time ever) and Pony runs out of the house. Johnny and Pony walk to the park to calm Pony down, and they're attacked by a carful of Socs. One of them almost drowns Pony in a fountain. Johnny, who was already beaten severely by the Socs, stabs and kills Bob Sheldon, one of the attackers. Johnny and Ponyboy go on the run and hide in an abandoned church out of town.
The climax, as here, is often found near the middle of a story, and marks a high point of physical and/or emotional drama. So, what's more dramatic that a burning church full of little kids? Well – teenage fugitives leaping into said burning church, and rescuing the little kids. Sure, they might have accidentally started the fire in the first place with their cigarettes, but that's not what motivates them to do the heroic act. Johnny and Pony don't think twice about helping. The crisis brings out all that is honorable and good inside them.
When Pony, Johnny, and Dallas come back from Jay Mountain, everything in Pony's world is uncertain. There are layers and layers of suspense driving forward the novel's action.
After the Greasers beat the Socs in the rumble, Johnny dies in the hospital. Pony wanders around for hours distraught, until a kind young man stops him and drives him home. Dallas, on the other hand, reacts by committing a robbery. He then shows his unloaded gun to the cops, who promptly shoot him. Pony passes out from shock, weakness, and injuries sustained in the rumble. He wakes up again several days later. Pony starts refusing to admit that Johnny is really dead. He also insists that he's the one who killed Bob. He's delusional, his grades are slipping, and he's clumsier and more forgetful than ever before.
Although the future remains uncertain for Pony, his brothers, and their friends at the end of the novel, most of the loose ends get tied up. Pony isn't charged with any crimes, and the judge doesn't remove him or Soda from Darrel's custody. Ponyboy reveals that he isn't, in fact, delusional – he was just pretending he killed Bob in order to cope with the grief of losing Johnny. Plus, his relationship with Darrel seems to be improving this time, especially as Pony becomes more sensitive to his brothers' needs and to his own responsibilities. But, as we discuss in "What's Up with the Ending?", something very important happens to him. Pony realizes that he has an important story to tell, and that telling it might help others boys out there – boys like him and his friends. So, he writes it down.