Ponyboy Curtis associates himself with a group of lower-class Oklahoma teens known as ‘greaser’; a named they’ve earned on account of their greasy, long hair. While walking home one evening after a movie, Ponyboy is confronted by members of the ‘Socs’, adversaries of the greasers who are teenagers from wealthy, upper-class families on the cities West end.
The Socs gang up on Ponyboy and portend to slice his throat. Ponyboy’s fellow greasers arrive in time to save their friend, and chase the Socs away. Coming to Ponyboy’s aide were his brothers Sodapop, the handsome and cunning high-school dropout and, Darry, the boys oldest brother and guardian since their parents lost their lives in a car accident. In addition to his brothers were Johnny, Dally, Steve and Two-Bit.
The following evening, Ponyboy and Johnny venture off with Dally to see a movie. The trio sit behind a couple of really good looking Soc girls. Dally flirts with the female Socs, but Johnny is quick to tell him to stop being so rude to the ladies. This prompts Dally to leave. Johnny and Ponyboy are left with the girls, names Cherry and Marcia.
Cherry and Ponyboy soon discover that they have much in common. Two-Bit arrives to the theatre, and the five of them set out to walk to Two-Bit’s house so that he can drive the girls home. While walking to Two-Bit’s, they run into the girls’ drunk and hostile boyfriends, Randy and Bob. Marcia and Cherry leave with their boyfriends in hopes of preventing a fight from breaking out.
Ponyboy is late returning home, much to the dismay of his brother Darry. Tired of constantly being criticized by his brother, Ponyboy yells at him. A fight breaks out between the brothers and Darry slaps Ponyboy hard in the face. Ponyboy takes off, in a bid to run away. Soon after, he locates Johnny, and the two of them head off to the park.
While there, they run into Randy and Bob who are accompanied by a group of Socs. The Socs violently attack the boys, one of them forcefully holding Ponyboy’s head under the cold water of a park fountain until he loses consciousness. When he comes to, he finds himself laying on the ground. Next to him is Johnny – and the corpse of Bob. Johnny tells him that he had no choice but to kill Bob, because they were going to drown Ponyboy.
Terrified, with no idea of what to do, the pair take off to find Dally Winston – the one member of the greasers who they think will know what to do. Dally presents them with a gun and a bit of money and instructs them to go to a church in the neighboring town of Windrixville. The church has long been abandoned, so the boys lay low and hide out for a week, cutting and changing their hair color to conceal their identities and passing the time by reading out loud. Several days pass and Dally comes to check on the pair.
Upon arrival, he tells Ponyboy and Johnny that since Bob’s murder, things between the greasers and the Socs have gotten worse. The groups have organized a rumble, to take place the following day, in an effort to settle things once and for all. He goes on to say that Cherry feels deeply responsible for Bob’s death and has been spying on the Socs for the greasers. Johnny proclaims that he intends to return to town and turn himself him.
Dally contends to drive Ponyboy and Johnny back home with him. However, when they go to leave, they notice that the church has been set ablaze. It is soon discovered that a group of schoolchildren had ventured inside. Ponyboy and Johnny rush into the burning building to save the children. However, the roof collapses just as they are retrieving the final child. Ponyboy succumbs to smoke inhalation and wakes up in an ambulance on route to the hospital. Once there, he is treated for minor bruises and burns.
Dally has also come out relatively unscathed. Johnny, on the other hand, was crushed by falling beams and remains in critical condition with a broken back. Darry and Sodapop come to pick up Ponyboy, Darry and Ponyboy agree to put their differences aside.
The next day, the local news declares Johnny and Ponyboy as heroes. It also goes on to explain that Johnny will be charged with manslaughter as a result of his involvement in Bob’s death. The report states that both Johnny and Ponyboy will be required to attend juvenile court and that their fate will be left up to a judge who will determine if they should be remanded to a boys’ home.
While on their way to the store to grab a Coke, Ponyboy and Two-Bit run into Randy who tells them that he has had enough of the fighting and has not intentions of attending the rumble later that evening. While Two-Bit and Ponyboy visit Johnny in the hospital, they note how weak he appears. Johnny asks Ponyboy for a new copy of Gone with the Wind (the book they had read in the church).
While visiting with Dally, the two notice how much stronger than Johnny he is. Dally asks if he can borrow Two-Bit’s switchblade. While walking him, Ponyboy and Two-Bit run into Cherry who says that she will not visit Johnny because he murdered Bob. This prompts Ponyboy to label her a traitor, a statement he later relents after she explains her reasoning.
During the rumble that evening, the Socs are defeated by the greasers. Dally, having escaped from the hospital, arrives just in time for the fight. After the fight ends, Ponyboy and Dally go to see Johnny and are horrified to learn that he is dying. After he passes, Dally runs off in uncontrollable desperation.
Ponyboy is barely able to make it home, he feels disoriented and is mourning the loss of his friend. He informs the rest that Johnny has died. They soon receive a phone call from Dally, who has called to say that he has robbed a grocery store and that he is on the run from the police. The greasers hurry to find their wayward friend, but are too late. Dally has been shot by the police.
Unable to cope with the stress, Ponyboy falls down and blacks out. When he wakes, he is at home. As it turns out, he had suffered a concussion from being kicked in the head at the fight earlier. He has been in bed for many days. When he is able, he attends court, where he is acquitted for the death of Bob. The judge rules that Ponyboy continue to live at the home of his brother, Darry. Ponyboy struggles with the loss of his friends and his liberties, and tensions begin to boil at home.
Finally, Sodapop tells Ponyboy that he cannot handle the way that things are going, and begs his brothers to stop their fighting. Seeing how upset Sodapop is, Ponyboy agrees to not fight with Darry anymore. He realizes that he can think of Dally and Johnny now, without pain or anger. He endeavors to tell their stories and begins to write a paper for his English class – called the Outsiders.
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