The book is about a 12-year-old girl named Meggie Folchart whose life changes dramatically when she realizes that her father, a bookbinder named Mortimer (Mo), has an unusual ability: when he reads aloud, he can bring characters from books into the real world. Meggie and Mo's adventure takes them throughout Europe, particularly Italy, and brings them into contact with many unusual characters. The sequel, Inkspell, was released on October 1, 2005, and the third book in the trilogy, Inkdeath was released September 28, 2007 in Germany.
Twelve-year-old Meggie Folchart , listening to the rain in bed one night, sees a stranger approaching her house. The man, who identifies himself as Dustfinger, is acquainted with Meggie's father, Mo, who Dustfinger calls "Silvertongue". Meggie overhears Dustfinger warning Mo about someone who is searching for him, and the three of them leave Meggie's most recent home (Meggie and Mo are constantly moving) and depart for a visit towards Italy. Meggie learns that she, Mo, and Dustfinger are fleeing from a mysterious man named Capricorn, and that they are going to her mother's aunt, Elinor. Meggie has not seen her mother since she was three years old, and although she and Mo love books, he never reads aloud to her.
While staying at Elinor's, some of Capricorn's men come and take Mo away to Capricorn's village while Dustfinger is performing a fire show for Meggie. Dustfinger has betrayed Mo in the hopes of saving himself. Elinor, Meggie, and Dustfinger (accompanied by his pet marten, Gwin) leave Elinor's house to follow Mo and his captor, an evil servant of Capricorn's named Basta. Meggie learns that her father has the power to read things in and out of books; one night, while reading the book Inkheart aloud to her mother, Mo accidentally reads his wife into the Inkworld and Capricorn, Basta, Dustfinger, and Gwin out. After chasing the villains away and saving Dustfinger's life, he tries for a few years to read his wife, Teresa, back into our world with no success. He and Meggie then lived a nomadic life, moving from place to place every few years, in order to keep away from Capricorn, who wants to use Mo's powers to his advantage.
Meggie, Elinor, and Dustfinger are captured by Capricorn's men and are used as hostages to force Mo to read aloud. Mo only agrees once he is holding onto Meggie – if she is touching him, he cannot read her into the novel. Mo reads a passage from Treasure Island and fills the hall with gold but when he reads from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights all that emerges is a boy named Farid. Dustfinger helps to free Meggie, Mo, and Elinor, realizing the foolishness of his betrayal, and Mo convinces them to take Farid when they flee. The five fugitives take Elinors car that they came with that was in the parking lot in Capricorn's village and flee to the Italian Coast where they try to come up with a plan. Mo realizes that he needs to find a copy of the book and read Capricorn and Basta back into it, and decides to try and track down the author, Fenoglio. They find him living contentedly in another small town, and reveal their story to him by showing them Dustfinger, who is horrified to discover he is a character in a novel and that, according to the original plot, will die at the end of the book. Fenoglio is reluctant to help them, but he and Meggie are captured by Basta, who brings them back to Capricorn's village as bait to force Mo to finish his plan.
Mo, Dustfinger, Farid, and Elinor sneak back towards Capricorn's village and try to decide how to save Meggie and Fenoglio. Meggie meets a servant of Capricorn's, Resa, who was a mute woman read out of Inkheart by Darius, Capricorn's stuttering reader, who she believes might be her mother. After being threatened by Mortola, Capricorn's mother and maid, she excitedly tells Fenoglio and starts reading aloud from some books Darius had left behind.
Meggie discovers she has roughly the same gift as her father. Mo sends Gwin to find Meggie with a message written in Elvish tucked underneath his collar; Meggie replies and reveals to Mo that she has the gift as well. Dustfinger infiltrates the village and finds Resa, and she asks about Mo and Meggie through writing. Dustfinger, who has feelings for Resa, reluctantly tells her the truth. Basta discovers Meggie's power when he finds Tinkerbell in her and Fenoglio's cell, and Capricorn demands that she will finish his plan. Fenoglio asks for some pen and paper to keep his mind clear, but secretly works on an ending to give his story a more satisfying conclusion.
Meggie is forced to read a passage from Inkheart and bring the Shadow, Capricorn's personal assassin of fire, into the real world. With Elinor and Resa held as hostages by Basta and Mortola theatening to poison her, Meggie agrees. Fenoglio gives her a sheet of paper to tuck in her sleeve and add to the passage to save herself. Farid and Mo light a fire to draw away Capricorn's men, and Fenoglio causes a ruckus so that Meggie can slip out his sheet of paper. Meggie summons the Shadow (and accidentally sends Fenoglio into his own book), but cannot bring herself to destroy it and Capricorn. Mo takes the paper and reads it; the Shadow kills Capricorn, and then explodes and reforms into all the magical creatures whose lives he stole in the covers of Inkheart. Basta and Mortola escape, but Mo and Resa are reunited. Farid and Dustfinger steal the last copy of Inkheart and leave to try and find a way into the story, while Mo, Resa, Elinor, Darius, Meggie, and some of the fairy creatures go to live at Elinor's house. Meggie decides to try and write stories of her own.