Famed novelist Paul Sheldon is the author of a highly successful series of historical romance novels involving a character called Misery Chastain. His latest novel, Misery's Child, ended with the death of Misery in childbirth. Paul wants to branch out to other genres, hence his "killing off" of Misery, and has just finished the manuscript of a new unrelated drama novel called Fast Cars. His agent believes that it was a bad idea to kill off Misery, but Sheldon argues that it was an important career move, as he does not want to be typecast as a romance writer. While in seclusion at a private cabin near Sidewinder, Colorado, Paul decides to head west to California for some rest and relaxation, but is caught in a blizzard and his car goes off the road, where he lies seriously injured and helpless. He is rescued by a former nurse, Annie Wilkes, and brought to her remote home nearby. By the time Paul regains consciousness, he is already in Annie's farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and hooked on Novril, an addictive, morphine-based drug Both of Paul's legs are broken, so he is bedridden and incapacitated. Annie claims she is his 'number one fan' and talks a lot about him and his novels. She is happy when Paul lets her read his new novel, but later admits she disliked the excessive swearing, despite the fact that the book is written from the point of view of a street kid who grew up impoverished in a big city. While feeding him, she is angered and spills soup on his bed and, in an unexpected fury, throws the bowl at the wall where it shatters. Annie apologizes and then spends an entire hour cleaning up the mess she claims Paul caused. By the time she finishes, Paul is in agony. She brings him his Novril capsules and forces him to wash them down with the water in the bucket she'd used to rinse the wall with.
She buys a copy of Paul's latest book, Misery's Child, but after learning that he has "murdered my" Misery, Annie flies into a rage, almost smashing a table on Paul's head. She reveals that nobody knows where he is (contradicting what she had earlier told him about the roads to town being impassable). Annie leaves and Paul considers escaping from his room, but she has locked the door and the thought of the pain he'd endure if he tried to get out of bed stops him. Trapped in bed, Paul is left starving, wracked with pain and dehydrated, forcing him to drink his own urine. When Annie returns 51 hours later, she genially apologizes for mistreating him but tells him she can't give him food or his medication until he performs a single task.
Annie forces Sheldon to burn the Fast Cars manuscript. Paul holds out for several more hours but finally cracks, needing his medication to end his agony. Unfortunately, Sheldon had never made copies of the manuscript, so Fast Cars is lost forever. Paul vows to kill her.
Annie comes up with a new plan: she forces him to write a sequel to Misery's Child, where Misery is brought back to life. She supplies him with a used Royal typewriter, which is missing the "N" key. Paul turns over a first chapter to Annie, who, while writing in the missing N's, immediately rejects it, saying that the manner with which Paul had resurrected Misery was cheating. She likens his method to Saturday serial matinees where her hero, Rocket Man, had repeatedly escaped death. One installment left Annie herself very upset because the story contained a small flaw: the car that the hero was trapped in exploded after falling from a cliff, before the hero could escape. The resolution the following week had shown the hero escaping the car before it had gone over the cliff, leaving Annie obsessively upset. Annie tells Paul he'll have to go back to the drawing board and do better.
Upon presenting Paul with the typewriter, Paul suggests that Annie supply him with different paper. The brand she'd chosen, Corrasable Bond, though one of the most expensive papers available, allows ink to smudge too easily. Stating that in a few years Annie will have nothing of the manuscript but smeared or blank pages, he asks her to get him less expensive long-grain mimeo. She agrees to get him the paper but in a fury, she pounds his bad knee with her fist, causing Paul tremendous pain. She stomps out. Paul, desperately needing Novril, picks the lock on his bedroom door with a bobby pin that had fallen from Annie's hair. After a tense few minutes where he fears the wheelchair will not fit through the door, Paul is able to escape the room. In the bathroom next to his room, he finds Annie's medication stash and takes several cards of Novril. Hearing Annie's car approaching, he quickly returns to his room. Annie doesn't discover his escape from the room.
Paul struggles with the concept of resurrecting a dead character until he has an epiphany; he is able to introduce a new trait into Misery herself, one that Annie had inspired: Misery had been allergic to bee stings and had gone into anaphylactic shock and could be saved from her grave. Annie approves and becomes very excited.
Sheldon plays his part for several more months, partially inspired by writing the novel and also because the heavy typewriter (which also loses it's "T" and "E" keys) makes for an exercise tool -- Paul is able to build his upper body strength will lifting the hated machine.
He escapes from his room one day to inspect Annie's house and stumbles upon her "scrapbook", where he discovers, while leafing through numerous newspaper clippings, Annie had been murdering infants and elderly patients while still a nurse, but was never convicted due to lack of evidence. Paul realizes the gravity of his situation has changed drastically and he steals a kitchen knife and plans to kill Annie with it. Annie discovers he was out, finds the knife, and cuts off one of his feet with an axe, cauterizing the wound with a blowtorch.
Weeks later, a local police officer comes by, and Sheldon uses this opportunity to get his attention with an ashtray thrown through the window. Annie uses a wooden cross to stab the cop repeatedly, incapacitating him. As he struggles to reach his cruiser, Annie runs over his head with a riding lawnmower. Paul expects Annie to punish him more harshly than ever but she locks him in her basement with some food, pills and a syringe of Scopalamine while she drives the cop to her private cabin higher in the mountains. When she returns, she fails to notice that Paul has stolen a small can of lighter fluid from near her grill.
Paul finishes the book and tells Annie. Prior to his announcement, Paul had made a few small requests: he asked Annie to pick up a bottle of fine champagne to celebrate with him and for a single cigarette to smoke and match to light it with -- part of his own tradition when finishing a book. After Annie brings him the items he'd asked for, he sends her out of the room a final time. Annie falls for the ruse -- Paul had only wanted the single match she gave him. He quickly douses the manuscript with the starter fluid he'd stolen and, while Annie watches horrified, Paul sets the stack of paper ablaze. Predicting correctly that Annie would bend over him to grab the stack of paper and run to douse it in water, Paul lifts the typewriter and brings it down on Annie's head, a blow that fails to kill her outright. A short battle ensues with Paul able to stand on his broken left leg. When Paul is finally able to pin Annie to the floor, he grabs the burnt paper and begins to shove it in Annie's mouth, forcing it into her throat. Annie is able to throw Paul off and approaches him, tripping on the typewriter and hitting her head against the bedframe.
Paul is able to leave the room and is found by two cops who'd shown up at Annie's with strong evidence that Paul was there. They take him to a hospital after gawking briefly at his slightly emaciated body and nearly-hysterical state of mind. He warns them that Annie is still in the bedroom and very dangerous; however when they inspect the room, she's gone. She's found a short time later in her barn, dead and gripping her chainsaw.
We find out later that Paul's burning of the stack of paper was a ruse: he'd hidden the actual manuscript under the bed where he was able to retrieve it later. He returns to New York sporting a prosthetic foot. Sheldon has released Misery's Return, and it is a hit. His agent wants him to write a non-fiction book on his experiences, but Sheldon refuses, as he is obviously suffering psychological trauma from his experiences, and often suffers nightmares and hallucinations of Annie coming to get him for revenge. He believes that if he tries to write a true account, it would end up more fiction than fact. Paul drinks heavily to deal with his PTSD. One day, while returning from a short shopping trip, he has an odd encounter with a child, a skunk, and a shopping cart, and begins furiously to write about it, having rediscovered his muse and begun to recover.
The story was adapted into a film in 1990 starring James Caan as Paul Sheldon and Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes.
The audiobook version of Misery is read by Lindsay Crouse.
- Misery was originally intended to be published as a Richard Bachman book, but while King was writing it the public discovered Bachman's true identity, and so Misery was instead published under his real name.