As the title implies, paper is a very important motif in Paper Towns. The term "paper town" is used to refer to many different kinds of things - copyright traps created by mapmakers, pseudovisions begun and never completed, and even completed and complex towns that are judged as too boring by Margo. This last category seems to be what drives Margo to her escape which launches the plot of Parts II and III; she tells Quentin, "Look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store...All the things paper-thin and paper-frail"(p.58). Margo challenges the seeming neat, perfect exteriors of places, judging them to be 2-dimensional like a piece of paper. Quentin is hurt by this accusation because he knows that she includes him in this, though she tells him at the novel's end that she doesn't believe this to be true any more.
Paper is also important in its own right to the story. Margo's last clue to Quentin is a book that he carries around and reads endlessly. Though not literal paper, it is pages on Omnictionary that allow Quentin and his friends to find Margo in Agloe, and Quentin often turns to printing out pages from online so that he can grasp their contents better. Finally, the little boy in Quentin's mother's story, a parallel character to Quentin, turns to filling endless pages with drawings, clinging to the physicality and routine of pencil on paper.
As the title of Part I - "The Strings" - would suggest, strings are also an important motif throughout the book. Different kinds of strings are referenced including strings that hold things together, the strings of balloons, and (broken) stringed instruments. The first occurrence of the word is spoken by Margo regarding the death of Robert Joyner; after investigating why he killed himself, Margo decides that, "Maybe all the strings inside him broke"(p.8). It is Quentin who likens himself and Margo to stringed instruments on the last page of the book, thinking, "We played the broken strings of our instruments one last time." The image of strings throughout the book is at once tragic and hopeful - strings are easily broken but in many cases can be grabbed and re-tied.
Mirrors and Windows (Motif)
Mirrors and Windows are another strong motif in the book. The concept of mirrors and windows is explained a good deal into the book by Quentin's parents - mirrors representing human show others ourselves and to show others themselves; windows representing the inability to see others truly. However, the motif of mirrors and windows is present throughout the book, and is very significant in understanding the relationship of Quentin and Margo.
At the end of Quentin's childhood memory of Margo, Margo shuts Quentin's bedroom window between them. Green writes, "Before I could sit back down, she just raised her face up toward me and whispered, 'Shut the window.' So I did. I thought she would leave, but she just stood there, watching me. I waved at her and smiled, but her eyes seemed fixed on something behind me, something monstrous that had already drained the blood from her face, and I felt too afraid to turn around and see. But there was nothing behind me, of course"(p.8). Re-reading this section after seeing the motif of mirrors and windows throughout the book, it becomes clear what young Margo sees: herself. At night, windows function as both windows and mirrors, and Margo seems appalled to suddenly see herself so up close.
Then next time Quentin interacts significantly with Margo, it is through this same window, showing that they still do not understand one another. And, though Quentin seems to change and to think he has changed throughout the book, when he finally finds Margo in Agloe he still sees her through a piece of tinted glass, demonstrating that he is still unable to find and see the true her.
Names are quite important in the book, and are shortened, lengthened, and changed altogether to give significance to certain characters. An obvious comparison is Quentin and Margo; Quentin is often referred to just as Q whereas Margo, especially at times when Quentin is feeling starry-eyed or lustful at her presence or memory, gets referred to as Margo Roth Speigelman. This shortening and lengthening demonstrates an importance Quentin is placing on her, but parallels his fundamental problem of overlooking her humanity and focusing on her beauty and fame (likewise, most of the popular characters in the book are referred to with both names until an encounter humanizes them to Quentin). Nicknames also hold significance for characters' traits; Radar - a technological instrument used to search for precise data - is a good example, and another reading of the name Q points to Quentin's penchant for asking questions.
Moby Dick (Symbol)
Green parallels Quentin's obsession with Margo by having Quentin's teacher Dr. Holden lecture on Moby Dick. Green writes, in the voice of Dr. Holden, "You never see Ahab wanting anything else in the whole novel, do you? He has a singular obsession. You can argue...that Ahab is a fool for being obsessed. But you could also argue that there is something tragically heroic about fighting this battle he is doomed to lose"(p.159). After this, Green, back in the narrating voice of Quentin, writes, "I wrote down as much as I could of what she said, realizing that I could probably pull off my final reaction paper without actually reading the book"(p.159). Though Dr. Holden is posing insightful questions very important to understanding Quentin's struggle - such as whether he is a hero or a fool, something Margo will bring up himself - Quentin clearly will not listen, even demonstrating uncharacteristic disregard for school, one of the effects of his obsession with tracking Margo. Moby Dick is doubly symbolic of Quentin's relentless obsession with his own white whale in a vast sea - Margo.
Paper Towns Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Paper Towns is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.