I used to think that the only way to work out a story problem was to actually write it and see if it worked, but now I'm past that. Instead, I just walk around and think really hard and test out possbilities in my mind. It's a very organized form of thinking, in that I need to constantly step in and assert order on my thoughts, or else all the thinking in the world is useless. For instance, sometimes I'll be test out a possibility for a plot event and it'll seem almost right but still wrong. And my instinct will be to shoehorn in some explanation in there and graft something extra onto the story that makes the plot event square out. For instance, if the story is a about a bank robber, and I'm wondering what bank he's robbing and why he's robbing it, I might say, "Oh, he's robbing it because he's angry at the bank because his credit was so bad that he refused to open a checking account."
And I'll almost think that I have it, but it still won't be quite right. It'll feel too contrived. Too disproportionate. Would this protagonist really rob a bank just because they denied him a checking account? And my instinct will be to be all like, "Oh, I'll raise the stakes. When they denied him a checking account, he wasn't able to deposit an important check and that led to him losing out on some opportunity that was really important and…"
And it's possible for me to go on and on like that, improvising on the idea.
That's not productive thinkings. That's just idle brainstorming.
But when I've really got my thinking cap on, I'll be able to step back and think, "What do I like about this idea? What I like is that it gives the protagonist a reason to commit this crime at this place. What don't I like about it? It feels too contrived and too forced. Now how can I find an element that will have all of the good and none of the bad of this idea?"
And then I'll be able to go back and start tossing around possibilities again.
This process of thinking up ideas, testing them out in my mind, and then subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny is something I call "clicky-space," because it literally feels like I'm maneuvering building blocks and trying them on in different ways and then finally clicking them into place in my head. I assume that 'clicky-space' is a 'flow state'. It certainly feels really right and really pleasurable in the way that flow states are supposed to feel.
But there's also something frustrating about it (particularly if it goes on for too long). Clicky-space is not a place that I go for the fun of it. It's a place that I go in order to do something. And if that thing isn't getting done, then I feel very thwarted.