In S. E. Hilton's novel The Outsiders, fourteen-year-old Ponyboy Curtis is a teenager on the edge. His parents are dead, and while his older brother tries to help him, Pony becomes caught up in the world of gangs and violence. Pony and his friends are "greasers," lower-class kids from the rough side of town who are the rivals of the Socs, or Socials, rich kids from the better areas. The two groups are constantly fighting, and Pony lands right in the middle of it.
In fact, Pony gets into a lot of trouble as he and his friends and their rivalry with the Socs get more and more out of control. Eventually, one of Pony's friends, Johnny, kills one of the Socs, and the boys find themselves on the run from the police. Johnny dies as the result of a fire in the church in which they had been hiding out, and another friend, Dally, is shot and killed by officers as he flees after robbing a grocery store.
Pony, who is allowed to go home with his brothers after a court hearing, is a wreck from all this trauma. He has always been pretty good in school, especially in English, but his grades drop sharply. As the novel draws to a close, Pony's English teacher, Mr. Syme, makes him an offer. Pony is failing the class, but if he writes a decent semester theme, he will pass with a C. What's more, this theme isn't to be a research paper, but an account of his own experiences and ideas. Pony agrees but doesn't seem particularly enthused about the assignment.
Later, though, Pony's brother tells him that he is smart and could get a scholarship to college if he really wanted to. He also finds a letter from Johnny in a book, telling him that there is good in the world and that he has "a lot of time to make yourself be whatever you want." Pony calls Mr. Syme and asks how long the theme should be. When Mr. Syme says at least five pages, Pony asks if it can be longer, and the teacher tells him that it can be as long as he wants. Pony sits down to write the story, the tragedy, of the past two weeks.