Ponyboy Curtis, a teenaged member of a loose gang of “greasers”, is leaving a movie theater when he is jumped by “Socs”, the greasers’ rival gang. Several greasers, including Ponyboy’s two older brothers—the paternal Darry and the popular Sodapop—come to his rescue. The next night, Ponyboy and two greaser friends, the hardened Dally and the quiet Johnny, meet Cherry and Marcia, a pair of Soc girls, at a drive-in movie theater. Cherry spurns Dally’s rude advances, but Ponyboy ends up speaking civilly with Cherry, emotionally connecting with a Soc for the first time in his life.
Afterward, Ponyboy, Johnny, and their wisecracking friend Two-Bit begin to walk Cherry and Marcia home, when they are stopped by Cherry’s boyfriend Bob, who badly beat up Johnny a few months back. Bob and the greasers exchange taunts, but Cherry prevents a fight by willingly leaving with Bob. Ponyboy gets home at two in the morning, enraging Darry until he suddenly slaps Ponyboy. Pony runs out the door and meets up with Johnny, expressing his anger at Darry’s increasing coldness in the wake of his parents’ recent deaths in a car crash.
Running away from home, Ponyboy and Johnny wander into a park, where Bob and four other Socs surround them. After some heated talk, Ponyboy spits at the Socs, prompting them to attempt to drown him in a nearby fountain, but Johnny stabs Bob, killing him and dispersing the rest. Terrified as to what to do next, Ponyboy and Johnny rush to find Dally, who gives them money and a loaded gun, directing them to hide in an abandoned church in Windrixville. During their stay there, Pony cuts and dyes his hair as a disguise, reads Gone with the Wind to Johnny, and, upon viewing a beautiful sunrise, recites the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost.
Days later, Dally comes to check on them, revealing that violence between the greasers and Socs has escalated since Bob’s death into all-out city-wide warfare, with Cherry acting out of guilt as a spy for the greasers. Johnny decides to turn himself in and Dally agrees to take the boys back home. As they attempt to leave, they notice the church has caught fire and several local schoolchildren have become trapped inside. The greasers run inside the burning church to save the children, but Ponyboy is rendered unconscious by the fumes. At the hospital he discovers that he and Dally are not badly injured, but a piece of the church roof fell on Johnny and broke his back. Sodapop and Darry come to the hospital; Darry breaks down and cries. Ponyboy then realizes that Darry cares about him, and is only hard on him because he loves him and cares about his future.
The following morning the newspapers declare Pony and Johnny heroes, but Johnny will be charged with manslaughter for Bob’s death. Two-Bit tells them that the greaser–Soc rivalry is to be settled in a final rumble. Ponyboy and Two-Bit are approached by a Soc named Randy, Bob’s best friend, who expresses remorse for his involvement in the gang war, lacks confidence about the rumble ending the feud, and says he will not participate.
Later, Ponyboy visits Johnny at the hospital, where he is in critical condition. On their way home, Pony spots Cherry and they talk. Cherry says she is unwilling to visit Johnny in the hospital because he killed her boyfriend. Pony calls her a traitor, but after she explains herself they end on good terms. After escaping the hospital, Dally shows up just in time for the rumble. The greasers win the brutal fight. Afterward, Pony and Dally hurry back to the hospital to see Johnny, but he dies moments later and a maniacal Dally runs out of the room. Pony returns home that night feeling confused and disoriented. Dally calls the house to say that he has robbed a store and is running from the police. The greasers find Dally deliberately pointing an unloaded gun at the police, causing them to shoot and kill him. Overwhelmed, Ponyboy faints and is sick in bed for many days due to the resulting concussion from the rumble. When the hearing finally comes, the judge frees Ponyboy from responsibility for Bob’s death and allows Pony to remain at home with Darry and Soda.
Ponyboy returns to school, but his grades