The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for Survive the Night by Riley Sager are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of Survive the Night by Riley Sager.
The one-paragraph version: Charlie is a female college student whose best friend, Maddy, was recently murdered by a campus serial killer. She hitches a ride home with a guy, Josh, who she starts to suspect is the killer. In the end, it turns out he was asked to abduct Charlie on behalf of Maddy's grandmother who blamed Charlie for not stopping and not being able to identify Maddy's killer. Josh ends up saving Charlie, and the killer is revealed to be Charlie's boyfriend Robbie. Charlie and Josh eventually get married. A movie is made of the ordeal and it's revealed that this book has been the Hollywood-ized version of the story.
Charlie is a female college student whose best friend, Maddy, was recently murdered by a campus serial killer ("The Campus Killer") while she watched. Charlie has a tendency to have hallucinations where she sees movie-like scenes play out in her mind, especially in heightened emotional situations, and she didn't think it was real.
Upset and guilty for not stopping him, Charlie drops out of college. She ends up getting a ride home from a man, Josh, who she starts to suspect is the killer as they drive back. After some mind games and confusion, they end up at a diner and Charlie has a chance to get away from him, thanks to the waitress Marge. Josh thinks about how the situation is regretful since he likes talking to Charlie. Charlie also manages to call her boyfriend, Robbie. However, Charlie decides to stay with Josh, deciding that she's going to make him pay for his crimes.
It results in Charlie stabbing Josh and returning to the diner. There, she is abducted by Marge, who turns out to be Maddy's grandmother. Josh isn't the killer, he's a bounty hunter hired by Marge to lure Charlie to the diner. Marge demands answers about Maddy's death from Charlie, and she attacks her when Charlie can't answer. Josh shows up and saves Charlie, but gets shot by Marge, who also starts a fire. Charlie escapes the fire while having a mix of hallucinations, one of which involves saying goodbye to Maddy. Before Marge can shoot Charlie, Robbie shows up and stops her.
They're about to drive off, but Charlie finds a box of teeth (which the serial killer took from his victims), and Charlie realizes Robbie is the Campus Killer. After a struggle, Robbie is drowned in the river and Charlie ends up at a hospital. Marge is there, alive. Charlie ended up not telling the police about her. Instead, she gives Marge a tooth she extracted from Robbie to show they now have justice for Maddy's death, which is what Marge wanted all along.
A final epilogue reveals that the story represents a movie-ized version of the actual events. Charlie is in a movie theater watching screening of it. In reality, the scenery was less attractive and there was no fire. Crucially, the scene final with Marge (reconciliation + the tooth) never happened. Instead, Marge shot herself after Charlie left her at the lodge. It's now years later, and Charlie is happily married to Josh who now works as a chauffer.
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The book takes place over the course of one night on November 19, 1991. Charlie Jordan is a (female) student at Olyphant University in New Jersey. Her best friend, Maddy, was murdered two months ago. Since then, Charlie has stopped going to class and has now decided to drop out of school. (She also doesn’t drive because her parents were killed in a car accident.) Needing a ride home, she posted a flyer on a ride-share board on campus, where she met Josh.
At 9:00 P.M., Charlie is waiting for Josh to pick her up, and they soon head out. On the road, Charlie tells him about how she she loves movies, but she sometimes hallucinates that movie-like scenes are playing out in front of her, usually prompted by her being a heighted emotional state. These visions seemed harmless until it resulted in Maddy’s death.
Charlie had been arguing with Maddy. When she walked away, she saw Maddy being attacked by a man. Charlie had assumed it was a hallucination, but it turned out that Maddy was being murdered by a serial killer known as The Campus Killer, who had murdered two other female students in the past four years. He takes one tooth from each of his victims.
Meanwhile, Josh talks about being from Toledo, Ohio and working at the university doing janitorial work. Afterwards, Charlie catches a glimpse of Josh’s ID. It shows that it was issued this year from Pennsylvania and that his name is Jake Collins. When the topic of Maddy comes up, Josh knows that the serial killer took a tooth from Maddy, even though it wasn’t in the newspapers.
By 10:00 P.M., Charlie starts to suspect he’s the killer and knows she need to get away from him. However, at a rest stop, the pay phone is broken. Instead, Charlie asks a random woman these to hitch a ride, but Charlie zones out as she’s asking. The woman thinks Charlie is a drunk and leaves.
Josh tries to confuse Charlie — showing her an ID matching his real name, lying about a conversation they had — making Charlie wonder about her own grip on reality. The book then shifts to Josh’s perspective, confirming that he’s lying to her to confuse her and swapped out the IDs. He came to campus specifically to track her down and has stuff like a rope, knife and handcuffs in his trunk.
By 11:00 P.M., Charlie starts to think she might be in an extended hallucination, but Josh slips up and she knows he’s lying. When Josh suggests they stop to eat, Charlie takes the opportunity to call her boyfriend Robbie, using a coded message (because Josh is listening in) that they’d previously joked about (“things took a detour”) to let him know where she is and that she is in danger. Robbie contacts the local police and heads out there himself.
When the waitress, Marge, notices Charlie’s discomfort with Josh, she offers to let Charlie stay behind at the diner, giving Charlie a clear opportunity to get away from Josh. However, in that moment, Charlie realizes she doesn’t want to leave. She wants to make him pay for his crimes and prevent future ones. When the cops show up, Charlie tells them everything is fine.
By now, it’s clear to Josh that Charlie suspects he’s a criminal. Back on the road, Josh seems curious why Charlie would get back in a car with him. He thinks about how the situation is a shame because he likes talking to her. As they talk, Charlie admits that she tried to kill herself four days ago with sleeping pills. Josh demands that she put on handcuffs, but Charlie stabs him instead.
At this point, she starts to lose her grip on reality, not knowing what is real or not. She starts to run away. She thinks she reaches the diner, but then it’s not clear if it’s really there or not. When she awakes at 1:00 A.M., Charlie initially imagines she’s in her dorm room, but then she sees that she’s tied to chair. But the person keeping her there is Marge, not Josh.
Marge reveals that she and Josh are working together. Robbie shows up, looking for Charlie, though Marge sends him on his way. Soon, Marge leads Charlie (bound and at gunpoint) to her car and they drive off. Robbie had known Marge was lying and tails her. However, Josh had driven back and seen Robbie follow her, so he tails them as well. Marge then takes Charlie to a lodge, and she tells Charlie that she wants to talk about her granddaughter, Maddy. (Marge has cancer and doesn’t care what happens to herself, she’s hellbent on answers about Maddy.)
Meanwhile, by 2:00 AM, a shift to Josh’s perspective shows that he was offered $20K by Marge to get Charlie to the diner, but seeing Charlie at gunpoint, he knows he needs to get her out of the situation.
Marge demands to know what Charlie knows, threatening to shoot her. Charlie repeats what she told the police about seeing a figment of her imagination as opposed to the actual killer. When Charlie isn’t able to provide the details she wants, Marge attacks her, but Josh bursts in, interrupting. Marge runs off. He tells Charlie he’s a bounty hunter. Before he can do more, Marge shoots Josh and drops a lantern in the process.
A fire starts to spread. Marge tries to shoot Charlie, but misses. Charlie ends up cornered by Marge, but manages to escape even as a mix of hallucinations confuse her. In one of them, Charlie sees Maddy and they have a nice farewell. When she refocuses, she’s outside, Marge is there and is about to shoot her, but Robbie shows up and stops her, getting grazed by a bullet in the process. They leave Marge looking dazed, but alive.
By 3:00 P.M., they hurry away as the fire spreads, but Charlie has to drive because Robbie is injured. In the glove compartment, she notices a ring box and opens it to find three teeth, revealing that Robbie is the Campus Killer.
Charlie purposely drives wildly until the car jumps off a bridge and into the water. They struggle under the water, but Charlie manages to handcuff Robbie to the car steering wheel.
After a draining early morning at the police station, Charlie is at the hospital. Marge is there too, still alive. Charlie ended up not telling the police about Marge’s role in all of this. Instead, she gives Marge a tooth she extracted from Robbie to show they now have justice for Maddy’s death, which is what Marge wanted all along.
Josh is also alive and at the hospital. Charlie and Josh make peace, and she suggests he get a different job. He offers he his car to borrow so she can get home. He suggests they grab a movie when she returns it to him. Charlie thinks about how she likely needs to get professional help for her hallucinations and how escapism into a movie-like world isn’t helping her. Then she gets in the car and heads home.
A final epilogue reveals that the story represents a movie-ized version of the actual events. (Charlie is in a movie theater watching screening of it.) In reality, the fire didn’t happen, but was added for dramatic effect. The beautiful lodge Marge took her too, was really a dumpy motel. The sinking Volvo happened, but there was no picturesque waterfall behind it. Most importantly, Marge had actually died — shot herself after Charlie left her there — there was no “triumphant moment with a tooth”.
It’s now many years later, and by now, Josh is working as a chauffer, and they are married. Josh asks what Charlie thought about the screening of the movie version of the events, and she says that the movie was not bad, but “real life is much better”.