Plot tangles are a fact of life, especially in the first draft, even Agatha Christie and Charles Dickens had plot tangles and they were prolific. The thing to do is not panic, I know that’s a cliché but realising there’s a tangle or a hole in your plot is not a disaster. These sorts of things are what editing was invented for. Next would be what to do about these tangles, which, unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to.
In a first draft sometimes it simply needs a few steps back or sometimes the best thing to do is keep writing passed them then come back and sort them out later. In a first draft it doesn’t matter if all the pieces slot perfectly into place, firstly because no-one else will see it and secondly because sometimes you need these mistakes to make the book better. This might seem counter intuitive but the thing about a plot tangle is that it often arises from something not being quite right and this something isn’t always in the direct vicinity of the tangle. Sometimes the cause of the plot tangle can come very early on in a story and it needs some thinking to find it and sort it out.
Alternatively it can be because as the writer you’re trying to take the story somewhere but the character doesn’t want to go that way. By which I mean you’re trying to write something that you know is out of character for them and makes no logical sense. For example, you might have a self-serving character doing something heroic or vice versa, I’m not saying they can’t but this might not be the right moment and the motivation isn’t there. Often, even if you don’t realise it consciously, you know when you’re trying to write something that doesn’t fit the character and needs a rethink.
Another one I’ve found is when you have a feeling something needs to go there but you simply can’t figure out what. At this point I usually find it best to make a note of this and carry on without it because as you go forward it will generally come to you. For instance you may find a moment that needs some foreshadowing, a bit of backstory that needs adding, or simply another moment to flesh out your characters. Once again, it’s a first draft it doesn’t need to be perfect. Bits can be missing, plots can be tangled or overly convoluted, extra characters or too few characters are all part of the process that can be refined in editing.
In a first draft anything can happen, whether we have planned or not, because that is what a first draft is for. In many ways it’s an experiment to find out what our story is about, which sometimes turns out to be something we didn’t expect and can bring on a tangle.
When you consider it you start with a blank page and by the end you have maybe 70,000 words or more, in the case of a novel, and that’s a long of time to develop your ideas about the story and characters. Sometimes by the end of the novel you know so much more about your character and the story that you end up doing an almost complete rewrite. Other times you might find yourself changing track half way through the first draft because your ideas have changed so drastically. This is all perfectly acceptable and natural and the messiness of a first draft doesn’t reflect on your skill as a writer.
Perhaps think of the first draft as a rock that you chip away at during editing to discover the diamond hidden inside.