Pony Curtis is a member of the Greasers, a gang of poor teenagers with long, oily hair and from the wrong side of town. While returning home from the movies one night, Pony is attacked by the Socs, a gang of rich kids from the west side of town. Pony is afraid that they are going to kill him and starts shouting for help. His brothers (Darry and Soda), along with Steve Randle, Two Bit Matthews, Dally Winston, and Johnny Cade, rush to his rescue. After ascertaining that Pony is relatively unharmed, Darry shouts at him for walking alone and tells him that he should use a bit of common sense. Darry is Pony's oldest brother who has provided for him since his parents were killed in a car accident. Darry knows that Pony is smart and wants him to do well in life. As a result, he constantly nags Pony about doing well in school and making good grades. Pony resents his brother's intrusion in his life and his unemotional ways. In contrast, Pony adores Soda, his middle brother. He is a high school dropout, who works at a gas station with his best friend Steve Randal. Two-Bit Matthews is a member of the Greasers who always tries to have the last word on things. Johnny Cade is another gang member whom everyone tries to protect, because his father constantly tries to beat him up. The toughest character of the Greaser's gang is Dally, who has been in and out of jail since the age of ten. Pony, Johnny, and Dally decide to go to the drive-in the next evening. There they meet Cherry and Marcia, friends of the Socs. Dally is rude and obnoxious. When Cherry throws a coke in his face, he stalks off in anger. Pony and Johnny are left to watch the movie with the girls, but they are soon joined by Two Bits. After the movie they decide to walk to Two Bits' house to pick up his car in order to take the girls home. Along the way, Pony and Cherry find that they have a lot in common; they are both are idealistic dreamers, who love sunsets. Suddenly a blue Mustang pulls up near them. Two members of the Socs, Bob and Randy, emerge from the car to confront them. A fight almost takes place between the boys, but Cherry prevents it by getting into the Mustang.


Two-Bit goes off to play snooker, and Pony and Johnny go to the vacant lot where they often hang out. At about two-thirty in the morning, Pony gets up with a start, for he has fallen asleep in the vacant lot. He rushes home to find Darry awake and frantic with worry. He shouts at Pony, which results in an argument. When Darry slaps his younger brother, Pony rushes out of the house and finds Johnny. As they walk in the park, Bob, Randy, and several other Socs attack them for being with their girls earlier. In the fight that follows, Johnny, in self-defense, kills Bob with his switchblade.

In a panic, Johnny and Pony go to Dally for help. He gives them a loaded gun, money, and directions to reach an abandoned church in Windrixville, where they can hide out. They change their appearance by cutting off their long hair and pass the time by reading Gone with the Wind and discussing life. Once Pony recites one of Robert Frost's poems, "Nothing Gold Can Stay." Johnny understands that "gold" in the poem stands for freshness, innocence, and purity.

On the fifth day of their hiding, Dally comes to visit Pony and Johnny. He takes them out to eat and informs them that the tension between the Socs and the Greasers has increased. A rumble between the two gangs is supposedly to take place the following evening. Dally says that he has started carrying an unloaded gun to serve as a deterrent to any serious trouble. Johnny announces his decision to turn himself in to the police, for he does not want to be on the run for the rest of his life. He believes that he will get a light sentence since he has killed Bob in self-defense. Dally tries to dissuade him; he knows first-hand that any prison time is miserable.