Anastasia “Ana” Steele is a 21-year-old college senior attending Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington with her best friend Katharine “Kate” Kavanaugh, who writes for their student newspaper. Due to an illness, Kate persuades Ana to take her place and interview 27-year-old Christian Grey, an incredibly successful and wealthy young entrepreneur. Ana is instantly attracted to Christian, but also finds him intimidating. As a result she stumbles through the interview and leaves Christian’s office believing that it went badly. Ana tries to console herself with the thought that the two of them will probably not meet each other again. However she is surprised when Christian appears at Clayton’s, the largest independent hardware store in the Portland area, where she works. While he purchases various items including cable ties, masking tape and rope, Ana informs Christian that Kate would like some photographs to go along with her article about him. Christian leaves Ana with his phone number. Later that day, Kate urges Ana to call Christian and arrange a photo shoot with their photographer friend José Rodriguez.
The next day José, Kate, and Ana arrive for the photo shoot at the hotel where Christian is staying and Christian asks Ana out for coffee. The two talk over coffee and Christian asks Ana if she’s dating anyone, specifically José. When Ana replies that she isn’t dating anyone, Christian begins to ask her about her family. During the conversation Ana learns that Christian is also single, but is not “a hearts and flowers kind of guy“. This intrigues Ana, especially after he pulls her out of the path of an oncoming cyclist. However, Ana believes that she is not attractive enough for Christian, much to the chagrin of Kate.
After finishing her exams Ana receives a package from Christian containing first edition copies of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which stuns her. Later that night Ana goes out drinking with her friends and ends up drunk dialing Christian, who informs her that he will be coming to pick her up because of her inebriated state. Ana goes outside to get some fresh air, and José attempts to kiss her but is stopped by Christian’s arrival. Ana leaves with Christian, but not before she discovers that Kate has been flirting with Christian’s brother, Elliot. Later Ana wakes to find herself in Christian’s hotel room, where he scolds her for not taking proper care of herself. Christian then reveals that he would like to have sex with her. He initially says that Ana will first have to fill out paperwork, but later goes back on this statement after making out with her in the elevator.
Ana goes on a date with Christian where he takes her in his helicopter to his apartment. Once there, Christian insists that she sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding her to discuss anything that they do together, which Ana agrees to sign. He also mentions other paperwork, but first takes her to his playroom full of BDSM toys and gear. There Christian informs her that the second contract will be one of dominance and submission and that there will be no romantic relationship, only a sexual one. The contract even forbids Ana from touching Christian or making eye contact with him. At this point, Christian realises that Ana is a virgin and agrees to take her virginity without making her sign the contract. The two then have sex.
The following morning Ana and Christian once again have sex, and his mother, who arrives moments after their sexual encounter, is surprised by the meeting, having previously thought Christian was homosexual because she had never seen him with a woman. Christian later takes Ana out to eat, and he reveals to her that he lost his virginity at fifteen to one of his mother’s friends and that his previous dominant/submissive relationships failed due to incompatibility. They plan to meet up again and Christian takes Ana home, where she discovers several job offers and admits to Kate that she and Christian have had sex.
Over the next few days Ana receives several packages from Christian. These include a laptop to enable her to perform research on the BDSM lifestyle in consideration of the contract as well as for the two of them to communicate, since she has never previously owned a computer, and a more detailed version of the dominant/submissive contract. She and Christian email each other, with Ana teasing him and refusing to honor parts of the contract, such as only eating foods from a specific list. Ana later meets up with Christian to discuss the contract, only to grow overwhelmed by the potential BDSM arrangement and the potential of having a sexual relationship with Christian that is not romantic in nature. Because of these feelings Ana runs away from Christian and does not see him again until her college graduation, where he is a guest speaker. During this time, Ana agrees to sign the dominant/submissive contract.
Ana and Christian once again meet up to further discuss the contract, and they go over Ana’s hard and soft limits. Ana is spanked for the first time by Christian; the experience leaves her both enticed and slightly confused. This confusion is exacerbated by Christian’s lavish gifts, and the fact that he brings her to meet his family. The two continue with the arrangement without Ana having yet signed the contract. After successfully landing a job with Seattle Independent Publishing, Ana further bristles under the restrictions of the non-disclosure agreement and the complex relationship with Christian.
The tension between Ana and Christian eventually comes to a head after Ana asks Christian to punish her in order to show her how extreme a BDSM relationship with him could be. Christian fulfills Ana’s request, beating her with a belt, only for Ana to realize that the two of them are incompatible. Devastated, Ana leaves Christian and returns to the apartment she shares with Kate.