The novel opens on 16-year-old protagonist Starr Carter attending a spring break party with her friend, Kenya. Starr’s family lives in Garden Heights, a predominantly black and impoverished urban neighborhood, but she and her brothers attend a ritzy and mostly white private school forty-five minutes away. At the party, Starr is acutely aware of the double-sided personality this lifestyle engenders: she tries not to act “ghetto” at school, but neighborhood kids accuse her of abandoning them for white friends. Starr has just started to catch up with Khalil—her best friend from childhood, who has entered the dangerous world of drug dealing since Starr began attending prep school—when a gang dispute leads to a dancefloor gunfight. Starr and Khalil flee the scene and are pulled over by a police officer for driving with a broken taillight. The officer pats Khalil down and walks back to his car. When Khalil opens his car door to ask Starr if she’s okay, the officer opens fire, and Starr watches her friend die.
The grief, confusion, anger, and fear that Starr must deal with in the aftermath of Khalil’s death make her initially unwilling to identify herself as the sole witness of the night’s events. As time passes, however, she loses her reluctance, serving as part of the police department’s investigation, speaking to the local defense attorney, and hiring a lawyer from a local activist group. Starr ultimately embraces activism herself by advocating for justice for Khalil on a nationally-televised interview and brazenly joining street protests after a grand jury fails to indict the officer who shot Khalil. Throughout the weeks that follow Khalil’s death, Starr must grapple not only with her own guilt and trauma, but also with white classmates who use the event as an excuse to get out of class or imply that the officer had done society a favor by shooting a drug dealer. She hides her involvement from her Williamson friends and her white boyfriend, Chris, before the truth comes bubbling up and Starr realizes which of her friends are worth keeping.
The tragedy of Khalil’s death tears through a neighborhood already fragmented by drugs and violence from deeply entrenched gangs. Starr’s father, Maverick, is a former gang member who spent time in prison before he could extricate himself from the street life. His long-standing feud with Kenya’s father, King—a gangster who effectively runs the neighborhood—puts Starr’s family in constant danger. Tensions arise between Maverick and his brother-in-law Carlos; Carlos was Starr’s first father figure while Maverick was locked up. The tense situation is further complicated because Carlos is a cop serving on the same force as the officer who shot Khalil. Torn between the protective impulse he feels for Starr and the loyalty he has towards his career, Carlos helps Starr see that police cannot be characterized as generally corrupt or bad people.
Starr’s mother, Lisa, argues with Maverick about whether the family should move out of Garden Heights. At first, Maverick is opposed because he believes he can best improve Garden Heights when he is living in it; Lisa counters that their family’s safety is a priority and that Maverick can continue to use the grocery store he owns in the neighborhood as a means to help the community. Ultimately, the family moves to the suburbs, but Starr’s brother Seven—who lives with Kenya and King—remains torn between the urge to stay and protect his mother and sisters, and the desire to attend college outside of the city. Meanwhile, a newly initiated gangbanger named DeVante turns to Maverick for help in getting out of the gang; he ends up living with Carlos.
The tensions and feuds running through the novel come to a head with the grand jury decision over whether to arrest the officer who shot Khalil. When the jury fails to indict, protests and riots take over Garden Heights. King takes advantage of the chaos to set fire to Maverick’s store while Starr, Chris, Seven, and DeVante are trapped inside. With Maverick’s help, they manage to escape; the neighborhood turns on King, getting him arrested for arson. With the promise of Carlos’s protection, DeVante agrees to serve as witness to King’s drug-dealing schemes, removing him from the neighborhood’s gang scene and ending his abuse towards Kenya and Seven’s mother. Maverick also grows to accept Chris, inviting his daughter’s boyfriend to go boxing with him. The novel ends with Starr making a promise to Khalil’s memory: she won’t remain silent, and will continue fighting against injustice.