The novel is told in epistolary format, as a series of letters, diary entries, ships' log entries, and so forth. The main writers of these items are also the novel's protagonists. The story is occasionally supplemented with newspaper clippings that relate events not directly witnessed by the story's characters.
The tale begins with Jonathan Harker, a newly qualified English solicitor, journeying by train and carriage from England to Count Dracula's crumbling, remote castle (situated in the Carpathian Mountains on the border of Transylvania, Bukovina, and Moldavia). The purpose of his mission is to provide legal support to Dracula for a real estate transaction overseen by Harker's employer, Peter Hawkins, of Exeter in England. At first enticed by Dracula's gracious manner, Harker soon discovers that he has become a prisoner in the castle. He also begins to see disquieting facets of Dracula's nocturnal life. One night while searching for a way out of the castle, and against Dracula's strict admonition not to venture outside his room at night, Harker falls under the spell of three wanton female vampires, "the Sisters". He is saved at the last second by the Count, because he wants to keep Harker alive just long enough to obtain needed legal advice and teachings about England and London (Dracula's planned travel destination so as to be among the "teeming millions"). Harker barely escapes from the castle with his life.
Not long afterward, a Russian ship, the Demeter, having weighed anchor at Varna, runs aground on the shores of Whitby, England, during a fierce tempest. All of the crew are missing and presumed dead, and only one body is found, that of the captain tied to the ship's helm. The captain's log is recovered and tells of strange events that had taken place during the ship's journey. These events led to the gradual disappearance of the entire crew apparently owing to a malevolent presence on board the ill-fated ship. An animal described as a large dog is seen on the ship leaping ashore. The ship's cargo is described as silver sand and boxes of "mould", or earth, from Transylvania.
Soon Dracula is tracking Harker's devoted fiancée, Wilhelmina "Mina" Murray, and her friend, Lucy Westenra. Lucy receives three marriage proposals in one day, from Dr. John Seward; Quincey Morris; and the Hon. Arthur Holmwood (later Lord Godalming). Lucy accepts Holmwood's proposal while turning down Seward and Morris, but all remain friends. Dracula has a notable encounter with Seward's patient Renfield, an insane man who means to consume insects, spiders, birds, and other creatures — in ascending order of size — in order to absorb their "life force". Renfield acts as a motion sensor, detecting Dracula's proximity and supplying clues accordingly.
Lucy begins to waste away suspiciously. All of her suitors fret, and Seward calls in his old teacher, Professor Abraham Van Helsing from Amsterdam. Van Helsing immediately determines the cause of Lucy's condition but refuses to disclose it, knowing that Seward's faith in him will be shaken if he starts to speak of vampires. Van Helsing tries multiple blood transfusions, but they are clearly losing ground. On a night when Van Helsing must return to Amsterdam (and his message to Seward asking him to watch the Westenra household is delayed), Lucy and her mother are attacked by a wolf. Mrs. Westenra, who has a heart condition, dies of fright, and Lucy apparently dies soon after.
Lucy is buried, but soon afterward the newspapers report children being stalked in the night by, in their words, a "bloofer lady" (i.e., "beautiful lady"). Van Helsing, knowing that this means Lucy has become a vampire, confides in Seward, Lord Godalming, and Morris. The suitors and Van Helsing track her down, and after a disturbing confrontation between her vampiric self and Arthur, they stake her heart, behead her, and fill her mouth with garlic.
Around the same time, Jonathan Harker arrives home from recuper